Honest Anniversary

This is the year that almost did us in.

I’m not supposed to say that out loud, am I? Anniversary posts on social media are supposed to be poetic and inspiring, spouses speaking of each other in glowing terms, any blemishes and flaws in the marriage carefully filtered out so that it is presented to the public as partnership of mutual (and nearly unmitigated) affection and happiness. I have written such posts myself. I know the expectations.

But when the rosy pictures of marital bliss come at the cost of authenticity, what then? If one or both of you is quietly dying inside, if you feel like your marriage is on the brink of imploding, then what comfort will you find in the seemingly perfect marriages of everybody else on your social media feed? When you sit alone on the bathroom floor, contemplating a future that appears bleak no matter what you choose, the past wedding photos of your friends and their confident declarations that all the ups and downs of their {fill in the blank} year marriage have been absolutely worth it only confirm you in your loneliness and the anguish of the feelings that maybe it hasn’t been worth it– not for you.

In that moment, as in any other moment of suffering, what we want most is to know that we aren’t alone. We want to be reassured that someone else is feeling or has felt the same doubts and anguish and loneliness, and that it is okay to feel those things. We want to be reassured that our pain does not make us outcasts.

So that is why I am writing an honest anniversary post. I have been that person in this past brutal year. I have doubted that Nate and I would make it to this ninth anniversary, wondering how we could be fundamentally good and decent humans who would never be intentionally cruel to each other and yet still hurt each other so deeply. Both of us have been caught in a mire of anger and resentment and grief and unhappiness. We had so many demons that the external crises of the previous years had forced us to stuff away in the “deal with this later” closet, and this was the year they all came bursting out, unable to be ignored any longer.

I have written extensively about my faith deconstruction. This was the year we had to deconstruct our marriage too. At times it felt more like demolition: taking the sledgehammer to crumbling walls, tearing down a shaky roof, wondering all the time if there was a solid foundation underneath to hold us up or if we’d get to the end and discover that there was nothing left. It was scary, but it was either take that risk or remain mired in a marriage that would slowly kill us both from the inside out. Marriages of the walking dead are common, especially in Christian culture where divorce is treated as a mortal sin and people are taught that happiness in marriage doesn’t matter. But we are both too stubborn to go down the path of staying married for the sake of keeping up appearances. We chose the risk of deconstruction.

And bloody hell, it was hard. We had to press into raw, vulnerable places and refuse to ease the pressure no matter how much it hurt. We had to confront the jagged edges in each other that had been ripping our souls apart. We had to not be afraid of the fights we had with each other– and to keep fighting, even when we were exhausted, even when it would be easier to walk away, until we had dug down into the muddy place past the hurts and anger and fear, the place where we could catch a glimpse of our love for each other. Sometimes it was very difficult to get down to that place. Sometimes the love seemed to have disappeared entirely, and I would sit alone on the bathroom floor, the tears and loneliness pressing in.

What helped was therapy, and good boundaries, and refusing to fake or force intimacy, and being vulnerable with each other, and hurling behind us any last remnants of the “God cares about your holiness not happiness” theology. We determined that if we wanted our marriage to be a lasting and healthy marriage (because the first never guarantees the last) it would be by finding a way forward in which both of us could be our most authentic selves, and build our happiness on that authenticity. We learned that you don’t have to try to make yourself feel that the past has been worth the pain, but that you can start reconstructing a new future together with the hope of the redemption of pain.

That’s why honest anniversaries are so important. Partners cannot build a true vision for the future if they cannot be authentic about what lies in the past. You can’t have a healthy house if the closetful of demons is still un-exorcised in the back room. This is not to say that everybody needs to categorize all the failings and miseries of their marriages on social media– but maybe we could be a bit more honest with each other when it comes to our marriages, risk a bit more vulnerability when someone asks you, “How are you and {spouse} doing?”, or, on the other side, be a bit more willing to sit with someone in that uncomfortable space of their unhappiness instead of throwing out a few platitudes or judgments and retreating back to your comfort zone. Scott Erickson writes, “It is only when we have exhausted our tales of trophy winning, when we let down our guards and speak to the truths about our travels, that we find that where we really connect as humans is in the places we have found we walk with a limp.” What if that’s what we need in our marriage stories too?

Nate and I are still here, still together. We are bruised and battered by this past year, but not beaten– not yet, anyway. (There’s humility in the last three words of that sentence, a recognition that we don’t control the future). We hope we will never be beaten; and as long as we are both willing to trudge the rugged, painful path of growth and change, I want to believe we will stick it out together, and keep digging down to find that love at the bottom of everything else. We are limping, but limping forward.

If you, too, are limping in your marriage, know that you’re not alone. There are a ton of awful Christian marriage books out there and most Christian marriage counselors are crappy too since they generally start from a complementarian (i.e. patriarchal) perspective. But I highly recommend Sheila Wray Gregoire’s blog, and I have other friends who have benefited from Cloud and Townsend’s Boundaries in Marriage. The Gottman Institute is also helpful. And if you can, try to find a licensed therapist*– even if your spouse won’t go it will help you.

*Not an unlicensed “biblical counselor”

P.S. This post was approved by Nate. Not because I need his permission, but because I respect his feelings about what I share about our marriage.

2 thoughts on “Honest Anniversary

  1. Thank you for opening up about the work a true marriage requires of us. You’ve confronted your pain and the sources of pain in a way that I hope many more people will do. In theory, so many people believe in marriage, but the way forward and through inevitable hurt is shrouded in such secrecy that most of us are ashamed to admit to and then wholeheartedly tackle a marriage that has become more lonely than companionable. I hope you and Nate keep finding strength in your willingness to make your marriage your own.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. scottagarber

    There’s an enormous amount of distrust and stigma placed on therapists by the conservative Christian community. It’s such a shame. So many people could be helped within church communities by the Church embracing clinical, scientific therapy. But “science” is so often preached as the opposite of “faith” and mental health needs dismissed as issues of faith (or worse, actual literal demons) that otherwise intelligent, reasonable people won’t seek or get real help. Thank you for using your platform to support good healthy therapy.

    Like

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