"Just be prepared. You two are going to have a very difficult first year of marriage." Well-meaning friends repeatedly expressed their concern during our engagement and early months of marriage. We spent a great deal of that first year on high alert. Was this "the fight" that would catapult us into crisis? Was tonight's disinterest in making love the beginning of a trend?
In retrospect, the first year was not so difficult. (It was year 10, FYI.) We had the to-be-expected negotiations (Wait! I'm supposed to take care of the oil changes?), compromises (Could we consider not going to your parents for all the holidays this year?), and disappointments (You have to work late on our anniversary?). We laid down the ground rules for arguments and learned how to give each other space. We also caught glimpses of just how broken we were. Maybe that's what those friends had seen and forecast in their doomsday prophecies.
A bit of background. Our childhoods had more similarities than differences: blue-collar families of five from the Northeast, chaotic, religious but not spiritual, and equal parts dys and functional. We became followers of Jesus, independently, in 1980.
The many differences between us become visible at the family dinner table. My family is Anglo/Saxon, his Italian. In my home, everyone had a turn to speak and when one person was talking, everyone else listened. His family was an opera where the curtain never came down. Everyone talked at once and whoever had the loudest voice won the right to be heard. I was shocked when I first visited. In the Littell house, fights led to icy silence and were generally avoided. The Greco house saw fighting as a means of connecting.
Though my husband and I endeavored to heal from our family of origin wounds pre-marriage, we truly had no idea how expansive and deep those wounds actually were. I had learned to become a perfect, invisible woman. I survived by meeting all my own needs or denying that I had them. When upset or angry, I retreated, afraid of losing my self-control in a moment of passion. No surprise, as he was growing up, he learned to pull the attention to himself in order to be seen and heard. His tendency was to dominate in conversations or arguments. I was all self-control, to a fault. He had little self-control, to a fault. (We are both smart people, but we never saw that speed bump until we were four feet in the air.)
There were more than a few moments in years two through five, when the babies came, that I fantasized about leaving him. Not for anyone else, but because our union made me aware of just how limited and incapable I was of loving another human being in a consistent and redemptive fashion. These feelings of incompetence marred my mask of perfection.
Mike Mason nails this struggle in The Mystery of Marriage: "To put it simply, marriage is a relationship far more engrossing than we want it to be. It always turns out to be more than we bargained for. It is disturbingly intense, disruptively involving and that is exactly the way it was designed to be. Only marriage urges us into these deep and unknown waters. For that is its very purpose; to get us out beyond our depth, out of the shallows of our own secure egocentricity and into the dangerous and unpredictable depths of a real interpersonal encounter. And that, incidentally, is also what true religion is supposed to do."
Marriage is meant to bring us companionship, to ease our aloneness, to allow us to enjoy our sexuality within the safety of a covenantal relationship. It is also meant to shake us to the core. To provide us with unending opportunities to lay down our lives in love. Not necessarily by dying in the physical realm, but certainly by dying in the realm of the ego.
I have been repeatedly shocked at how difficult it can be to truly love this man. To show him kindness and patience. To extend myself to him when he is needy. To do even a tenth of 1 Corinthians 13. Years ago he was in a particularly difficult space. Typically I can bear with him for two, three days max. We were in day four and I was growing increasingly impatient. In prayer, I sensed God direct me to offer to make love with him that night. I balked. Not because our sex life was in shambles, but because I knew that I would have to be totally present and tender. I pressed in. My husband was deeply moved that I would choose to cross his minefield and extend God's love in such a tangible way. When we make these sacrificial choices, the sweetest love flows between us.
Apart from this type of Christ-filled and Christ-motivated love, I sincerely doubt we would still be Mr. and Mrs. Having a solid, fulfilling marriage is unequivocally the most difficult accomplishment any of us will ever pull off. My husband and I are not exceptional people. We have come to understand that without being transformed into the image of Jesus, without confessing our sins, extending forgiveness, and turning to God daily, we could not continue to say, "I do."
Jesus told his followers, "Whoever is the least among you is the greatest" (Luke 9:48). Marriage is "a systematic program of deliberate and thorough-going self-sacrifice, a sort of contest in what might be called 'one-downsmanship,' a backward tug of war between two wills, each equally determined not to win" (Mystery of Marriage).
In marriage, as in our relationship with Christ, we win through surrender. This is completely countercultural and offends our pride. And it is potentially the only strategy that will allow our marriages to prosper. God be with us all as we yield to the heat of this holy crucible.
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Dorothy Littell Greco uses words and images to help folks find transformation through Jesus Christ and see the beauty in everyday life. She currently lives outside Boston with her husband and two of her three sons. You can follow her via Facebook or by visiting her site: www.dorothygreco.com