All Marriage is Hard Marriage

Whenever I officiate a wedding, I ask the couple if, during the ceremony, I can say something akin to the following:

There is something that you’ll run into – something about your spouse that you can’t stand – something dark and unattractive about them.  When this happens, you’ll be on the fence for awhile, thinking that you’ve made a mistake, that you’d be happier alone or happier with someone else.  If you get past that stage you’ll be tempted to change the other person.  “If I can just get them to be different everything will be ok.”  But if you can learn to love your spouse, darkness and all, you’ve entered into a deeper love.  It’s easy to love when everything’s perfect.  But to love without condition is to step into a deeper world, a place where most people won’t go.

For the couples that let me get away with the above (understandably, not everyone’s comfortable with it), I end with a charge to pursue this unconditional love.

I don’t do it for the benefit of the couple (newlyweds don’t listen to anything), but for the people in the audience.  Most marriages aren’t going well, especially for people in their late 30’s and early 40’s.  We’ve somehow gotten it in our heads that when we get married it’s some kind of picnic.  If not it’s because we married the wrong person.  People who stay in bad marriages either spend a good chunk of their energy trying to change the other person, or live, day-to-day, for the rest of their married lives, bitter about their situation, pining away for their soul-mate.

I’m an Evangelical pastor, so, culturally speaking, it’s verboten to divorce.  But let me tell you that I’ve entertained the idea.  So has my wife.  So has every one I know.  Years ago I sat with a friend, someone who I respect very much.  He was pushing me about some areas of laziness in my life.  “I have a high maintenance marriage” I said, shifting blame like a 3 year old.  “So do I” he immediately fired back.  “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.”  This shit’s hard.

My wife and I have navigated some difficult things.  We’ve walked through hell. Together.  For some reason, when two people experience hardship, even if it’s at their own hand, they grow closer.  Elaine is my best friend.  I know that she’ll grind whatever grist the mill requires to stay with me.  There’s not enough room on the internet to list the crap she’s had to put up with.  The older we grow, the more thankful I am for her.  The more attracted I am to her.  We’ve learned how to fight, to express our issues with humility, to listen, to apologize – when to stand firm and when to let things go.  We’ve learned how to love each other.  I’d be a fool to do anything but learn to love her more.

The difficulties of our marriage have forced our hand, pushed us into a deeper ocean.  A better life together.  I know it sounds weird, but the other person’s difficulties/darkness/imperfections, well loved and accepted, are one of the fundamental elements of a great marriage.


How I Plan to Win a Fight

A few weeks ago I went to the Dallas area to stay with a friend, get away from the kids for awhile, watch the Superbowl, and try to relax.  The trip went really well until the last day when we got into what seemed to be a small tiff.

He came home from work and took me to lunch.  He was having a bad day and seemed distracted, so we didn’t talk much.  When we got back to his place I took my shoes off and began to relax a bit before leaving for the airport. He had to get back to work but wanted me to move my car out of his garage before he left.  “Why?” I said.

“I don’t think you’ll be able to get the garage door closed when you leave.”

“What?  I can close a garage door.”

“But you need a remote to close it when you’re leaving.”

“No, I can hit the button from the inside and walk out while it’s closing.”

(Him, getting ramped up because I’m not listening)  “But you’ll trip the sensor and the garage won’t close.”

(Me, getting ramped up but not stopping to ask why) “I know about the sensor, I close our garage door that way all the time at home.  If nothing else I can just come back in the house, close it, then leave through the front door.”

My friend, “Fine.  Bye.”  Walks out the door

Me, thinking “Wow, we’re not going to see each other for another year and that’s how you want to leave it?  Ok, jerk.  Have a nice life.”

Now, I’m a Christian man, meaning that I think things like this should be handled the way Jesus wants me to handle them, which means I should’ve just moved the stupid car.  I got really convicted about the whole thing and sent him a text saying that I was sorry and should have moved the car.  No response.  I left a similar note on the kitchen table next to the key to his house.  Still haven’t heard anything.

I know, it all sounds really stupid.  When I got home and told my wife about it she looked at me like all wives look at you when you’ve done something stupid.  “Why didn’t you just move your car?  Wouldn’t that have been easier?” Me (like a dog who just got caught drinking out of the toilet) “Yeah…”

But this fight’s not over – there’s still some fighting left to do.

First, I’ll need to call my friend and let him vent about what happened.  I’ll have to fight against my need to always be right, and my need to never lose – at anything.  I’ll have to ask him questions that give him the freedom to tell me how he feels.  What I’ll probably find out is that what pissed him off had little to do with the garage door, and more to do with him feeling disrespected and un-listened to.  Most fights have little to do with the issue at hand, and more to do with old wounds and unresolved anger.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some really sad stuff they’re carrying around day-to-day.  I’ll need to make sure he’s in a good place before I move to the next step, which might take awhile, so I’ll have to fight my tendency to “fix” things quickly.

The next step will be to explain to him why I got so ramped up.  To do this, I’ll have to fight the fears I have of being vulnerable, of sharing my weaknesses with other people.  Here’s what I’m scared of sharing.

I spent most of my life being treated like a fuck-up, mainly because I was the guy who fucked things up alot.  So, I grew up feeling like a fuck-up.  It’s not a good feeling, so around my college years I decided to no longer be a fuck-up, and every time someone treated me like a fuck-up I’d get really mad.  Really. Mad.  I’ve managed to transcend the image in my later years, just a bit at least, but I still get really mad when treated like an incompetent.  So, when someone communicates to me, for example, that I can’t do something simple like close a garage door, I get really ramped up.  It’s not their fault, they’ve just unwittingly traipsed into a very old wound that I haven’t quite managed to redeem yet.

I’ll have to share all of that with my friend, and I’m scared to death to do it.  What if he doesn’t listen?  What if I can never get him to the point where it’s time to talk about my side of things?  What if I can’t control all of this?  I’ve laid out this nice little plan about how things should go but who knows how he’ll respond.  Who knows where this will land?

It’s hard for me to articulate how important my relationship with him is.  I’ve known him most of my life and can’t imagine life without him.  What will ultimately win this fight for me is my commitment to our relationship.  When I deem the relationship more important than my pride, or prevailing over someone so I can feel “right,” I win.  Every. Time.

But it’s also important for me to tell my side of the story, for him to understand what happened with me.  For me to have a voice.  He could have easily trusted me to close the garage door but he didn’t, and that hurt my feelings.

That’s right.  I said it.  It hurt my feelings.  Regardless of why I got my feelings hurt, I got my feelings hurt.  I wish I didn’t.  I wish I was more mature than that.  But let’s be honest – we hate to talk about getting our feelings hurt, it makes us feel childish, not-so-mature.  Weak.  Unfortunately it happens all the time in adulthood.  That’s why we get angry.  Anger, most of the time, especially in interpersonal conflict, is a symptom of hurt feelings.  How many times did you get angry in 2015?  That’s how many times you got your feelings hurt – hate to break it to you.  But telling someone that they hurt you will get their attention much faster than if you say, “hey dickhead, I’m an adult, you need to trust me to close the stupid garage door.”

He might say something akin to “I hurt your feelings?  What are you a three year old?”  At that point I’d recite what I’ve stated above.  If that doesn’t go anywhere I can remind him of multiple episodes of where his anger was driven by his hurt.  Like I said, I’ve known him for a really long time.

But it doesn’t matter how he responds.  I call it a win if I 1) let him vent and 2) get to a place where I can tell my side of the story.  If all of that happens and he’s still mad at me, I’ll remember that there are deeper things at play here.  I have some intimate knowledge of the unresolved hurts that he walks with day-to-day.  If he’s not willing to let this go, or forgive me, it will be because there are things at play that are darker and deeper than a garage door.  If our future encounter doesn’t go the way I plan it to go, I’ll have compassion, and I’ll forgive.  That’s where being a Christian comes in really handy by the way.  I believe God has forgiven me for all infractions – past, present, and future, regardless of whether or not I deserve forgiveness.  For me to un-forgive someone, regardless of whether or not they deserve it, is the deepest act of unbelief, according Jesus’ teachings (click here for a verse that illustrates this perfectly).

It’s tempting to live in the extremes – either cutting the other person off and walking away, or apologizing for everything.  Both are easy but neither is an investment in the relationship.

So yes, I’ll try and get him to vent, and I’ll try to tell my side of the story.  If things don’t go my way, I’ll remember what he’s dealing with and forgive.  More than likely, I’ll be closer to him and more committed to him than I was before. That’s what happens when you put this kind of risk and work into a relationship.

Either way, I’ll win.  That’s what conflict is all about


60 Years was not Enough: What my Grandparent’s bad Marriage Taught Me about Life

I learned so much from watching my father’s parents grow old together, then say goodbye.

Mary and Lloyd (Frenchie) seemed to live as distant roommates – married strangers.  Looking back on their life, I don’t remember them displaying any physical signs that they loved each other – i’m not saying they didn’t, it was just hard to tell from my perspective.   By the time I was a teenager, they had separate rooms in their tiny Biloxi, Mississippi home.

When I was in grad school we got the news that my grandmother had contracted a type of cancer that would take her life in short order.   She was in her late 70’s at the time and very quickly began to show physical signs that things weren’t going well.

This had a strange affect on my Grandfather. All of a sudden he began to care for her, to attend to her, to pay attention in a way that I had never seen. He was now her caretaker, her caregiver, her best friend.  We all took notice – it was a different dance for him, something we weren’t expecting.

In what seemed like such a short time, Grandma was admitted into the hospital and quickly slipped into a coma.  The doctors told us she wouldn’t be waking up.  I wasn’t there for this closing scene – my parents related it to me – but we were all dumb-struck.

Grandpa shuffled into her room, stood at the foot of her bed, grabbed her feet and said, looked at her sleeping eyes and said, “60 years was not enough.”  I always imagined that he saw her as she was when they first met, only more beautiful.  I was reminded of their seemingly un-physical relationship – I had never seen them touch each other.  But Grandpa became a different man in the last days of his marriage.  He was falling in love with her and mourning the “empty” spaces of their life together.

I’m not sure what drove my grandparents apart.  I heard there was quite a bit of unresolved “stuff” in their marriage – things that they just couldn’t seem to shake – pretty common in a marriage.  But however impossible those things might have been to overcome, they were quickly and thoroughly annihilated when Grandma got sick.  Her impending death would be the end of the distance between them.

While I was deeply touched by the reconciliation that my grandparents were able to experience, I was also floored at how deeply bitterness had affected their life – so deeply that the only thing able to shake it off of them was the loss they suffered.  I thought about the bitterness I’ve held to in my life – all the relationships I’ve abandoned – the life that I’ve missed.

Years later, I’ve done some unpacking about my failed relationships and the bitterness that destroyed them.  Bitterness doesn’t kill love, it only covers it, so deeply sometimes that we become convinced that the love is gone, the friendship dead. I have a friend who recently kicked her husband out of the house, then divorced him, then moved on to find something better.  Her husband had grown distant and despondent towards her, something that broke her heart over and over again.  The bitterness between them, unchecked for 15 years or so, grew like a thick blanket, leaving her disconnected from the love she still has for him – completely convinced that she’s “over” him.

It would be great if it worked like that – if we could just wash our hands of the love that we’ve built (discovered?) and “move on.”  But it doesn’t work that way, and if we ever run into something painful, heartbreaking, or difficult, for some reason we’ll be able to see through the bitterness we’ve so foolishly allowed to build up – then wail silently as we mourn what could have been.  We’ll see the love that’s still somehow burning and feel like complete idiots that we were so deeply duped.

I’m now at a place where I take greater care with my relationships (I’m at least better than I was 10 years ago).  When conflict comes, especially when I get my feelings hurt (something I hate admitting but also something that happens so much), I try real hard to silence the pride and voice what’s going on.  On a good day I’m willing to take the risk that I’ll get laughed at, further hurt, or worse sit and listen to the other person offer an heartfelt apology then talk about me behind my back.  There have been times when my friend and I have come to a deeper place through the conflict.  Those times, and the resulting depth of relationship, are truly worth the risk.

My efforts in relationships are less contingent on the other person’s behavior than they used to be.  They’re more contingent on the fact that I love and value these people, and that I love and value myself.

My wife is masterful at allowing me to voice my hurt and air my grievances.  I’m careful to qualify that the hurt I feel in my marriage is more based on hurts that I suffered long ago before we met.  But, thanx mainly to her mature understanding of things, we’ve been able to keep our blanket of bitterness ever so thin – at least thin enough to offer some evidence that there’s something under there – never so thick that we become ignorant of how we really feel about each other.

Relationships are designed to get better, not worse.  I can always blame the other person when things are going bad, but relationships that you have to fight for are the best ones, the most valuable ones.  I have a responsibility to do my part – to take risks, confront, apologize, pursue, pray, suffer on some occasions, maybe even get in a fist fight if that’s what it takes – so that I might enjoy the one thing in life that has no boundaries.

There are tight restrictions in this universe on how famous you can be, how much money you can have, material possessions, influence, etc.  There are no boundaries whatsoever on how many friends you can have (if you’re not picky about what they look like, who they are, etc.).  It’s as if something set the cosmos in a way that all but forces us to understand that great friendships are truly the greatest things.

The most wonderful times of my life have all revolved around great friends.  When I’m on my death-bed I won’t be comforted by my accomplishments, my wealth, my influence, definitely not my fast fleeting looks.  I’ll remember Chris and Brad and Paul and Josh.  Elaine, my kids, my Brother, my Parents – all people who I went deep with, and all people who gave life to my world like nothing else.