We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it awhile and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is … learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University ethics professor
No one likes to think of any aspect of a normal, loving marriage as having “problems.” And we certainly don’t like to think, especially starting out as newlyweds, that we will at some point be faced with the “problem” of learning how to love and care for our spouse. These things should come naturally!
Today Mike and I celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary. He is the love of my life, and I am damn proud of our marriage, and of us as a couple. The average length of marriage in the United States is 8 years, so by this point you would think we would have this marriage thing in the bag. And yet if you were to ask me the secret, I couldn’t tell you. I am as baffled by this institution as the rest of you. The aspect of marriage that most often has me scratching my head and begging friends for clues into their marriages is the constant cycling between bliss and discontent. Why are some patches so easy? We are kind and thoughtful, affectionate, we find everything the other does endearing. And consequently, what causes the bottom to seemingly drop out one day? The wind shifts and suddenly your spouse is all wrong – every word, touch, look and action is a trigger for frustration and argument.
I always try to have both a fiction and non-fiction book by my bedside, and a couple of weeks ago I picked up Timothy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. I’d read an article he’d written a while back and it had resonated with me, so I thought I’d give his book a go. Not even 40 pages in I came across the passage you see above, and it was if I had been standing in a dim room for 16 years and suddenly the light was switched on.
We are continuously growing and changing. And in that change, we are dragging our spouse along, whether they like it or not.
Suddenly, I could see the past years of our marriage much like the diagram I used to study with great hope about child development. It showed the spiral of development of the child, and within that development the child would alternate between stages of equilibrium and disequilibrium. Or as I liked to think of it, to hell and back. My mantra during those times of difficulty was, “I don’t like you very much right now, but I love you.” And just when I thought we would surely kill each other, the particular stage was over and parenting became smoother once again.
As eye-opening as that was for me as a parent, so is this idea that we are changing as partners and often in disequilibrium. And if God has given me the grace to walk through those times with my children with patience and love, then surely He expects me to show my spouse the same.
We are not the same people who fell in love as college kids. Moving away from home changed us. Facing debts and responsibilities changed us. Becoming proud homeowners changed us. Holding our child for the first time changed us. Losing jobs changed us. Finding new passions changed us. Betrayal and addiction changed us. Forgiveness changed us. Growing our family changed us. Losing parents changed us. Life will continue to change us. Thank God.
We are better people today than we were 16 years ago. While I wish some things would never change, my waist-size being one of them, I am glad that we aren’t the the people we were when we married. We’re kinder, more patient, more grateful for the gifts we’ve been given. And in the years we have to look forward to together, I pray that we remember to use that patience and grace to love and care for each other as we do the inevitable: change.