“Are you willing to write about marriage? Especially when it gets hard?”
This is what Elisabeth’s message to me said.
Of course, she asked because her readers are among those hurting in their marriages, and we need to know we are not alone. And she asks me because I have written about my own struggles in marriage before.
And yet, preparing to write this has been incredibly difficult. Because somehow it feels that, unless your marriage is actually over and you are walking away (or being left behind), that to share openly about specific hurts is somehow a betrayal. A squishing of hope. A calcification of discontent.
I am reminded of the Psalmist’s words in Psalm 73, where he struggles with doubt and the terrible feeling that he has been hard-done-by while evildoers appear to flourish and get away with it. He’s tangled in the “this hurts!” and “it’s not fair!” and “don’t you see me, God?”, and yet he catches himself in the midst of his rant and confesses he’s glad he didn’t parade all his anxiety in public. “If I had spoken thus, I would have betrayed your people,” he writes (verse 15).
I don’t want to be one who lashes out in pain and in doing so, betrays my person.
I am married to a good, kind, loving man. He fears God, he is faithful, and he loves us. That being said: there are seasons where we hurt each other deeply, and sometimes I despair that we will ever learn to communicate well. We have gone weeks in stony silence. I am not unaware of the damage we do to each other and our children.
And yet, it feels wrong to talk about these things. If love always protects, always hopes, and does not keep a record of wrong as 1 Corinthians says it does; then where is the line between admitting that marriage is hard—really, really hard—and yet still holding out hope? How can I be someone who tells the truth, acknowledges the struggles, and yet celebrates the good, focuses on the good, lovely, excellent and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8), and believes God for hope, healing, and flourishing in the future? These things war within me.
I write for a site for engaged and newly married couples, and I struggle every time with what to say to this community of starry-eyed lovers. In a world where we are given “5 steps to better communication”, and “30 days to a happier husband”, how can I communicate “sometimes you can’t fix it by talking, you just have to bear with one another in weakness,” without being relegated to the corner of sad-sack Debbie Downers? If they are spending their hours preparing for their “happily ever after”, how can I tell them that some of the healthiest and happiest elderly couples I know say that if you like each other just 70% of the time, you’re on a winning streak? These are not sparkling statistics in our romantic imaginations.
So what can we say? Or not say?
In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolfe paints a poignant vignette of a woman in the park beside her traumatized husband, threatening suicide in his pain:
“He would not kill himself; and she could tell no-one. “Septimus has been working too hard” — that was all she could say to her own mother. To love makes one solitary, she thought.”
I held my breath a while after reading that sentence. There is a real sense in which love makes us solitary. We hold our loved ones’ secrets and sins close to our hearts. We do not shame them in their weakness, just as we trust them not to shame us in ours. The most personal relationships need their privacy.
And yet, sometimes it helps to talk. To hear someone tell their story and to breathe our relief: “Oh, me too. I thought I was the only one. I thought perhaps I was crazy.” Hearing we are not so alone gives us courage to keep loving. I think maybe there’s a reason Elisabeth couldn’t tell the story of what was going on in her hurt for over a decade: you don’t know what you don’t know, and also – when you do know, you do your best to love, to heal, and to support. “A bruised reed he will not break,” wrote Isaiah of the coming Messiah. And so where we see bruised reeds, we tread carefully.
But then the time came when the reed broke on its own, and Elisabeth could tell her story. The telling was no longer a betrayal, and I count myself among the many, many women grateful that she did. I’m grateful, too, to the older woman in my church who tells me honestly about some of those moments in the 30% not-happily-after-seasons, and the other who sees us overworked and in the trenches of early parenthood, and says “I remember that was so hard on our marriage.” Their stories give me hope that I am not alone. I am seen. I am understood. Even if I can’t say anything about it right now.
Because it’s not always time to tell our own stories. But sometimes, it sure helps to hear someone else’s.
Bronwyn Lea is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs here.