Category Archives: Marriage

What I know about marriage (after 16 years)

January 10, 1998

January 10, 1998

What I know is that I don’t know much. After sixteen years I feel like I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of this mysterious, magical, wild thing called marriage. Still, I have learned some lessons (most of them the hard way–ARE WE SURPRISED?! Nope!) and I thought I’d share them with you.

The first thing I learned is that our culture gives really bad relationship advice. Here are a few examples of things I heard that turned out to be totally and completely false:

1. “You’re too young to get married–you need time to Find Yourself!” One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received is the honor of bearing intimate witness to my spouse’s life journey–and he to mine. It is precisely because we married young (he was 24, I was 20) that we were granted this privilege of watching each other grow up and into the people we were meant to become. He is not only my husband, he is my best friend and I have “found myself” in the context of committed relationship. My deepest happiness has sprung from Finding Myself by serving and loving my husband and children.

Spring 2002: James & Jewel, ages 2 & 1.

Spring 2002: James & Jewel, ages 2 & 1.

2. “Don’t have too many children!” My experience has taught me there is such no such thing as “too many children.” The happy clamor, fullness of daily experience and countless opportunities for growth, sacrifice and intimate relationship are among the most priceless blessings of my life. As Mother Teresa once said, “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.” Initially, I only “wanted” one or two children. I’m incredibly grateful God didn’t give me what I “wanted”–He gave me something far better!

Summer 2003

Summer 2003

3. “You should wait to have children.” Again, this hasn’t proved true to my experience. By all societal measures, we ‘shouldn’t’ have had children when we did. We were young, financially limited and living inside an oppressive religious environment. We weren’t “ready” to have children. But we had them anyway. And having all five babies by the time I was 30 was, quite possibly, the best decision we ever made. Having our babies while we were very young (and with limited financial resources) meant our options were limited–in a good way. It meant we spent more time at home doing simple things. We ate meals at home together, played board games, took walks to the park, spread blankets in the shared yard of our duplex and read books together. I couldn’t afford to send my first children to fancy preschools or buy them lots of new clothes from fancy children’s stores, but I could give them the gift of my time. I don’t regret one minute of “giving away my 20′s” to my children. It was the best investment I ever made.

And despite the bad advice our culture gave me, I did receive some good advice–mostly from people of faith. Here’s the good advice I received that has proven true to my sixteen years of marriage:

1. “Easy does it:” I learned the hard way that there’s just no good reason to stay up until 2am arguing. It’s much better to wash your face, brush your teeth, kiss your spouse and go to sleep. You can solve the problem in the morning when you’re rested. Give yourself some space. Give your spouse some space. Be gentle and easeful with each other. There’s no need to nag, prod, argue or debate (don’t ask me how I know–har-har). Let the other person be who they are and let them have their own process on this journey together. I’ve found greater results in simply maintaining my OWN side of the marriage without worrying about what my husband is or isn’t doing.

Winter 2009

Winter 2009

2. “Love, honor, cherish and forgive. Rinse. Repeat.” When I was single I used to say things like: “If my husband EVER did _______(fill in the blank), I’d leave!” How precious of me. What I’ve learned is that we have BOTH given each other ample reason to leave the marriage. But instead of leaving, we have BOTH done the work. We’ve stayed. We keep recommitting to staying and working. And then, seasons change. There were hard years of bearing and raising very small children. There were sick years where it seemed we caught every single flu and virus known to man. There were poor years where we had to scrimp and make do. I’ve learned not to make big, life-altering decisions during difficult years. In other words, I didn’t need to decide whether we should get divorced when our preemie-twins were only three months old and we were sleep deprived, exhausted and stressed out of our minds, ya know? I could wash my face, take a nap, kiss my spouse and forgive.

Spring 2012

Spring 2012

3. “Speak well of your spouse:” I’m a talker. This we know. I’ve made some pretty big mistakes with my words. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s very important to speak graciously about my spouse and to my spouse. I’ve also learned to avoid correcting, nagging or complaining. Do I really need to be right? About everything?? No. Sarcasm, teasing, crude jokes and words that cause hurt or fear really have no place in a loving relationship. I’ve learned (and am learning) to use my words to bind up the wounds, heal, restore and inspire. As Buddha once said, “When words are both true and kind they can change the world.” Or my marriage. :)

4. “Forgive and begin again:” My husband has literally forgotten all my mistakes. It’s weird. Sometimes I’ll remind him of something unkind I’ve done and he’ll be like: “What? I don’t remember that.” My husband teaches me how to see the best and believe the best. This is love. Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. My husband sees me through the eyes of love and it is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. This is what it means to live without resentment. It means we don’t give safe harbor to wrongs done against us. We let them go. We forgive. And as we do, like the springtime, love is renewed again and again and again.

Love never fails.

16 Years!

16 Years!

Divorce after twins

Sunday breakfast: phone calls, coffee, perusing the newspaper

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead
and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
–Thornton Wilder 

Looking back, I can see how blindly optimistic I was–as if willpower alone could rescue and restore us to sanity. I never once imagined we’d be taken down by the slow, inexorable crushing: months of sleep deprivation and twins born on the cusp of a devastating economic downturn, the strain of raising five children on one income and the ongoing process of recovering from our cult backgrounds.

I guess I just didn’t think divorce could happen to us. That somehow, we’d be different. We’d overcome. After all, we’d escaped our childhood cults and forged a new life for ourselves. We’d beaten the odds. We were the exception.

There’s a reason, I think, why people refer to life Before Twins and life After Twins. Giving birth to multiples–especially on top of three other children–is the kind of shocking life change around which the whole of a marriage seems hinge. At least, that’s how it’s been for us.

“The twins run the show now,” a neonatologist told us when our babies were still in the NICU. He was amused, chuckling. I remember thinking: yeah, right. I’m already a mom of three. How much more intense can it be, really?

Answer: way more intense.

I had heard the anecdotal horror stories about marriages falling apart within five years of a twin/multiples birth. Four years after our twins were born, I suddenly understood.

Last summer, I asked my husband to move out. I was exhausted. We were both exhausted. Burned out. I didn’t have the will to carry on anymore. The prolonged crucible of raising twins had exacerbated all our other issues. At the time, I could see no way through except quitting.

But the greatest act of courage is to love. I heard that line last night in Smokefall, a play at South Coast Repertory. Something in that line sank deep into my soul. This play was the story of a family–a pregnant mother of twins whose husband who could no longer bear the crushing weight of life. And so he disappeared one day. It was the story of a family over several generations. It was poetic and plebeian, heartbreaking and humorous. It was a story of leaving and staying, of the moments that define us and bind us.

And like all good art, this play reflected life back to me. It inspired me. It helped me remember. The greatest act of courage is to love.

My husband and I, we stayed together. By daily grace we are staying together. Last summer was our rock bottom and it’s been a long, slow, moment-by-moment recovery. But it is a recovery.

We live in these daily moments and by being present in them–by living the pain, by facing our pain instead of seeking escape–we are finding a very present grace and a refined-by-fire love.

There are moments like a Sunday breakfast–the twins flipping through the coupons (look! Mama! orange juice on sale!), husband answering a phone call from one of his employees, my ballerina wandering in all groggy and tired from her week dancing in NYC, our sons playing with the the dogs–these moments we remember.

In the end, these moments are all we have–the moment in the arbor where the rain beat/ The moment in the draughty church at smokefall/Be remembered…. –T.S. Eliot

Every day is the choice to live courageously–to love by word and deed–to cross the bridge between life and death. The bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

Love is a…choice?

A few months after we were married, church leadership “strongly encouraged” us to attend a marriage workshop. Frankly, attendance wasn’t optional. To maintain our good standing in church, we were more or less required to attend these workshops. And participate (which was code for: take lots of notes, be enthusiastic! and never, ever ask a question that challenged the speaker’s ideas).

I hated these workshops. They gave me panic attacks because the message we heard was always the same: Love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice. Love isn’t about passion or attraction. It’s about sacrifice. Your feelings will lead you astray. Follow God’s will and feelings will follow! Control your feelings. If it feels good, it’s probably sinful! Whatever you do, don’t trust your feelings!

Time and again I’d sit through these lectures while the workshop leader hammered his point into us. Love isn’t a feeling! Love is a choice!

Looking back, I can see how harmful it was to divorce love from feeling. I understand the intention was good–many Christians have felt the need to offer a corrective against a feelings-only approach to love and marriage. But I believe that corrective has gone too far and resulted in unintended, tragic consequences.

The first negative consequence was a breakdown of communication. Since I wasn’t allowed to feel what I felt or even admit that I felt something outside the “Approved Range of Emotions,” I found myself totally silenced. I literally could not even find the words to describe what I was experiencing because I was scared. I knew that if I said I felt confused, worried, fearful or angry (feelings that were DEFINITELY outside the approval zone) it was the same as confessing my lack of self-control/sinful attitude/rebellious spirit. And even if I did work up the courage to express what I was feeling, I was told “you shouldn’t be feeling that way.”

In other words, there was no way to say what I felt–or even feel what I felt–without being punished for it.

The second negative consequence was that I truly began to believe my husband didn’t really love me and/or that I was inherently unlovable. I mean, I knew he loved me. But I didn’t feel it. There was a huge disconnect. As long as love stayed up in an ivory tower making highly-intellectual pronouncements about love being a DECISION of the MIND!, a fulfillment of DUTY! and a KEEPING OF THE VOWS!–I could not connect. I tried. Oh, how I tried. But something was missing.

And in related news, do you have any idea how difficult it is for a woman to achieve orgasm during sex if there is very little emotional connection? I mean, sure. I could achieve orgasm in a manually-operated, strictly-business, DOING MY DUTY kind of way. I could have sex “by the book.” But by squashing my emotions (love isn’t attraction, it’s sacrifice!), sex just seemed like a lot of mechanical work. We started having better, more intimate, emotionally-connected sex once I was all: MATT! I’M ATTRACTED TO YOU! I HAVE FEEEEEELINGS FOR YOU! And he was all: I’M ATTRACTED TO YOU! And then we were both like: OH! IT’S OK TO ENJOY THIS!

Even after we left the cult, it took me years of therapy to finally acknowledge the importance of my feelings, especially in the bedroom.

This constant disconnection led to the third and worst consequence of all: I became deeply, horribly depressed. I wanted to die. In fact, dying looked like a blessed relief. Dying meant an end to the constant pain of living without feelings of love. I really thought something was terribly wrong with me–spiritually, morally and physically. I mean, what was so wrong with me that I couldn’t just BELIEVE and make a DECISION OF THE WILL and CHOOSE to love? It seemed to work for everybody else! WHY couldn’t I just get with the program? Was there some sort of unconfessed sin in my life? Had God maybe predestined me for Hell?

It has taken me nearly ten years and countless hours of therapy to undo the damage of ignoring, suppressing, shaming and denying my human emotions. Quite honestly, our marriage was saved because we both started being honest and accepting of our emotions.

What I have learned is that when it comes to love, separating feelings of love from actions of love is a false dichotomy. We are human beings, we are not disembodied spirits. Our feelings and emotions are just as much a part of us as is our mind, will and intellect. And it is dangerous to compartmentalize, separate and shut-down ANY part of our humanness.

I’ve also learned that loving actions don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are sourced from loving feelings. Yes, it’s important to behave lovingly even if we don’t feel loving. However, to say that love isn’t a feeling AT ALL but ONLY an action is to unintentionally degrade the importance of loving feelings. It is the kind of teaching that falsely elevates the importance of the mind over the importance of our God-given human emotions.

Love is feeling AND action.

Love is passion AND sacrifice.

Love is attraction AND commitment.

Love is an adjective AND a verb.

Love is word AND deed.

Love isn’t JUST a choice.
Love is also a feeling. 

Giving our men their balls back? How old-school misogyny is still thriving among Christians.

Old-school misogyny is alive and well. Except now it’s dressed in hip clothing. It probably blogs. It probably gets its ideas from books rife with harmful gender stereotypes. And it probably uses edgy language like “giving our men their balls back…one day at a time.” OK, see. Let’s stop right there. I have questions.

  1. If you’re gonna give the balls back, why do it one day at a time?
  2. Why not give BOTH balls back on the SAME day?

I also need an explanation for this statement: ”The Love & Respect book had a lot of sexist stereotypes about women but hey! Let’s talk about how awesome this book is!”

Well, that’s a paraphrase. Here’s the real quote:

I’m not going to promote or bash this book… it had some good points that have been eye opening and some HUGE stereotypes that made me crazy mad.

You know what makes me crazy SAD? I get so discouraged when, instead of refuting those HUGE, harmful stereotypes, Christian women promote those ideas by asserting that We Women–and I quote–”have essentially castrated our men.”

Well, thank goodness we haven’t literally castrated our men, amen? Because, ew. Also, messy.

My real problem, here, is that harmful books like these are still popular in Christian circles. What REALLY breaks my heart is that women who are sincerely trying to improve their marriages fall prey to harmful teaching mainly because the most popular Christian books on marriage are harmful!

Heck, this book has spawned Love & Respect-themed retreat$! There are workbook$!

*sigh*

Is this book really about helping people?

Because here’s the thing: any Christian book that claims to have discovered “THE SINGLE GREATEST SECRET to a successful marriage”  is highly suspect. It makes all my fundamentalist triggers go on high alert. It’s formulaic! If you follow steps 1-2-3, you, too, can have a Successful Marriage!

I mean, dude. How did couples ever manage to stay married before this book was published? THEY DIDN’T KNOW THE SINGLE GREATEST SECRET!

Just in case you’re wondering, the Single Greatest Secret for Marriage Success is that women need unconditional love and men desperately need unconditional respect. Yes, men desperately neeeeeeeed respect. It’s in the title. Love & Respect: the love she most desires, the respect he desperately needs.

I don’t know about you, but a man who desperately needs anything from me is also highly suspect. I don’t like neediness. Neither does my therapist. She has this fancy word for it: co-dependent.

Also, what is unconditional respect? To me, that sounds like a huge loophole for tolerating abuse. Like, hey, woman. NO MATTER HOW BAD I TREAT YOU, YOU MUST RESPECT ME!

Why is respect gender exclusive, anyway? Women need respect, too, yes? I mean, are we calling Aretha Franklin a liar??

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to me! 

Ahem. I digress.

Point: I have a hard time believing there’s any Biblical support for “unconditional respect.” I COULD be wrong. Feel free to correct, exhort and rebuke me in the comment section. I will listen. Or delete you. Depends on whether you desperately neeeeed me to respect you. Mwah-ha-ha.

Multiple reviewers have noted that the book is ‘incredibly sexist“. So, why are Christians still propagating this stuff?

I just don’t get it.

Oh, wait. I do.

It’s all Eve’s fault!

 

Living in the light

I used to think divorce was the worst thing that could happen to me.

Now I know that there are worse things: like living a lie, like thinking it’s all my fault for not fixing it, like trying to pretend everything is fine-oh-fine because we have a “reputation” to protect.

Being real hurts. Hiding is so much easier–or so it seems while you’re hiding.

Living in truth is painful. But it sets you free.

Lies bind. Truth frees.

Telling the truth after you’ve been hiding is like walking out of a dark theatre into the blinding brightness of a sunny afternoon. You squint, you cover your eyes. The light is painful. It takes time for your eyes to adjust.

But when you adjust to the light, you can see everything. You realize you never want to go back to that dark theatre where all you could see was the flickering illusion of reality on a screen.

You want to live your real life in the light.

I used to think it was my job to fix everything, to make everyone happy, to be a “good wife”–whatever that means. I expended outrageous amounts of energy trying not to make mistakes. And even more energy trying to cover up for others’ mistakes.

In the end, hiding wasn’t easier. It was exhausting.

Now I understand that my only job is to live openly, vulnerably, courageously–freely making mistakes and freely learning from them.

We are not divorcing.

Together, we are stumbling into the blinding brightness of freedom.

Things I’m Learning in Marriage Counseling

  1. Human beings need rest. One of the first questions our therapist asked was: when was the last time you both rested? R-e-s-t-e-d? Ba ha ha. Who has time for that? We have five kids. We’ll rest when we die. Rest. Pfft.
  2. Insight: we don’t know how to rest. No, seriously. We.don’t.ever.stop. We’ve been adding and over-committing and racing forward every single day. Doing too much is our normal.
  3. In fact, taking a break feels selfish. When our therapist recommended we take a relaxing trip together, my first feeling was panic. I can’t leave my kids! What if they need me? Then again, I took nine days to go serve the poor in Bolivia. But I’ve never taken that much time to tend my marriage. Why is that?
  4. If you don’t rest, then you burn out. I think that’s a big part of where our marriage is right now. We are burned out, washed up, exhausted. Ever since the twins were born, we’ve been burning the candle at both ends. The demands of raising twins + 3 older kids + a Recession has caught up with us.
  5. Once broken, trust is hard to rebuild. I curled up in a ball because it felt like I was dying. I mean that seriously. A broken heart feels like death. I understand now how people can die of a broken heart. I don’t feel like I’m dying anymore but I am sort of hobbling around with a permanent heart-limp.
  6. Separation FEELS horrible. Being apart–especially in the aftermath of heartbreak–only made things worse. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I lost weight. I cried so much the skin around my eyes felt like it might rip. Being separated from my husband felt like being torn away from half of my body. For better or worse, I am one with him.
  7. Our bodies tell us what we need to know. I’m learning how to stop and listen to what my body is telling me. So often I spend time up in my head, totally cut off from the messages my body is sending me. But I can only ignore my body for so long. This summer my feet broke out in psoriasis–a sure sign that I’m under stress. I’ve also had a tight knot in my right shoulder that won’t go away. I’ve been moving so fast, I haven’t slowed down long enough to figure out what my body is telling me. In order to hear my body I have to…
  8. ..sloooooow down. My husband and I are both driven, extreme personalities. We’ve been firing away at full throttle. It’s time to dial it back. Observe. Feel. Breathe.
  9. The fog of war. It’s important not to make big decisions during extremely stressful times. I’m giving myself permission to rest, take naps, be gentle with myself and not make massive, final decisions while my heart is still so tender.
  10. Codependency. I’m just beginning to understand the meaning of this word but yeah, codependent is how I was trained from birth to function in relationships. I have so much to learn…..but I’m on the right path. No more lies. Dealing in truth is painful. But it leads to true freedom.