We’ve just crossed about a month past our anniversary, and I honestly meant to write something for that. I had the idea, but couldn’t find the words. Sometimes words just come to me, a written catharsis that weaves itself onto a page with little to no effort and spurned on by nothing but open thought. And other times I need to marinate over an idea, turning my thoughts back and forth like a roast on a spit, until finally something coherent comes together. This is one of the latter times. Mike and I have been married seven years, and together for nearly a decade, and while it’s been such a beautiful and magical blessing, it’s been a hard fought and tested one as well. And because we’re in the stage of life where so many of our friends are finding themselves faced with the potential end of their own marriages– or at the very least in the thick of real, harrowing challenges, I wanted to share some of our own journey- one that nearly ended, because hard times test even the fearlessly resilient.
My mother-in-law warned me that we’d see a wave of divorces in our circles of friends- one at 40 and another at 60. And she wasn’t kidding. We’re in the thick of it right now. And silly me- thinking that because this is the second marriage for both of us, we’d be immune to that phenomenon… after all, we’d both gotten divorce out of the way earlier on. (What a thought, amirite?) Two years ago, we were living in Salt Lake City- a beautiful place we escaped to after a trying three years in Atlanta. We’d been close to family, but we’d been sucked into the rat race and were aggressively pursuing two ambitious careers and were miserable in a city that seemed to defy everything that we said mattered to us. So we fled to the west, pursuing a job that let him spend more time with our family, to a city that valued me as a stay-at-home, homeschooling hippie, and that let us be different without thinking a thing about it. That should’ve solved all our problems, right?
We saw more of each other, and saw a huge change in our quality of life (I’m looking at you, Atlanta traffic), and we made friends who had so much in common with us and our values. And yet…our problems were still there. We just didn’t know it. And we didn’t know it because we didn’t talk about it. As people who’ve been married before, my husband and I came into our marriage with a very different perspective. Our previous marriages were rife with fights- shouting matches followed by long periods of cold silence and passive aggressive mutterings. Our approach at marriage #2 was so different- we just don’t pick most battles. In fact…we didn’t pick any at all. In nearly ten years together, we have never raised our voices at one another- not exaggerating. But here’s where our troubles came in: I was fighting with him in my heart.
When I started staying home with our children, deep in the throes of postpartum depression, I started keeping score. I kept track of how much better I thought he knew his employees than our children, or how many more diapers I changed or loads of laundry I folded. I mentally journaled every remark he made about the state of the house as a criticism of my homemaking- regardless of whether or not he meant it that way- and in my mind, I was sowing the seeds of resentment. I’d had a phenomenal career that was still on the upswing when I left corporate America, and here I was, feeling like a failure and the one person I needed reassurance from couldn’t see all the good I was doing. But I didn’t tell him that.
So when we moved to Salt Lake City, I started punishing him. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. Instead, I thought I was just being a martyr to my motherhood- I stayed up late writing lesson plans and perfecting my lasagna recipe, or I went to bed as soon as the kids were in bed because I didn’t want to stay up and hear him talk about another great day at the office. I spent long hours with our children and shut him out- making motherhood my #1 job and keeping him from interfering with what I’d decided that he thought was not important or interesting enough for him. We were disconnected from one another, even if we had more time to spend together, and my resentment at how things had changed kept us from reconnecting in this new, amazing place that was supposed to heal us from a particularly bad season.
The distance between us didn’t heal us- it made things worse. Our special needs daughter started struggling with increased anxiety, and our littlest guy developed sleep troubles. That increased stress only magnified my own internalized anxiety and anger, but on the outside, everything was “fine” and I was just sacrificing myself to the honor of motherhood (or some other baloney like that). We continued to have this silent distance until it pushed us away from each other and into worse troubles. We sinned against one another, and let the seeds of resentment grow roots of bitterness. And eventually, the inevitable happened. Everything came to the surface, and we had to decide if we were going to work to save what seemed beyond salvaging, or if we were going to let go and move on.
I’ll never forget crying at my kitchen table with my pastor and his wife, who held my hands and told me “Lauren, it’s okay to fight for your marriage.” They sat and prayed over me for reconciliation, and for the strength and support to turn from sin and to turn back to our commitment to one another and our children. I’ll never forget my very best friend in the world saying to me over the phone, “Lauren, I can’t imagine a world where you and Mike aren’t together.” Or the countless other friends who heard my sobbing over our story and who said, “oh friend, you’re not alone. We’ve been there too, and we had to just decide to get through it.” So it was. My friends who’d been through our story and lived to see the other side had one thing in common that our friends who divorced didn’t have: forgiveness.
Don’t get me wrong- I know there are bad marriages. As a person who has been divorced, I know all too well that some people just aren’t meant to be together. But I also know that there are a lot of good marriages that are rife with bad seasons, and I wasn’t ready to end our story just because of a bad chapter. And so, I had to face a really tough prospect: could I forgive my husband for all these things I was carrying in my heart- things he did willingly and things he never even knew were problems for me? Could I let them go in order to save us?
As a person of faith, forgiveness is at the heart of everything I believe. I wake up and can keep going because I believe I’m forgiven for the sins of the previous day. I know I will continue to sin, but my heart for the Father steers me away from as much sin as I can muster, and I have to believe that my desire for forgiveness and the Grace that doles out forgiveness freely redeems me of the sin I inevitably commit in spite of my best efforts. Who am I if I can’t extend some bit of that grace to the person who shares my home and my bed? My heart was broken, but I wasn’t ready for my home to be broken too. I’d love to say that I just woke up and forgave him and he forgave me and we lived happily since then. But truthfully, we both needed help. We each saw therapists to help us navigate our own roles in what happened to us. We needed first to see our own faults and responsibilities in getting to where we were, and then we needed to forgive ourselves, before we could forgive each other. In trying to be the perfect spouses, we found ourselves lacking, and we compensated by silently nitpicking the other to death in an attempt to prove that we were equally unworthy.
But here’s what we found: neither of us is the perfect spouse. We’re both high achievers. Our lives have taken very different turns over the course of our marriage, and some of those turns, and their divergence from our original plans, have been hard for us to handle. There were so many opportunities for us to talk openly and honestly about how we felt, but we consistently chose to say nothing– whether out of a desire not to fight, or a fear of showing vulnerability- and that choice only built up resentment and frustration in us both. Shutting each other out was never the answer- but we consistently went with it anyway. Because sometimes saying nothing is easier than dealing with hard feelings. Only when we were willing to be vulnerable and admit our own imperfection were we able to move past what was inevitably going to ruin our marriage.
And there it was. Forgiveness. As I sat on the edge of my bed, booking flights for myself and my children, I realized that if I went back to Atlanta that would be it. My mother always told me, “It’s hard to work on your marriage, Lauren, if you aren’t together.” I knew if I left we wouldn’t have any hope of working it out. He’d have to work, and his work is demanding. I couldn’t just dream of him chasing me across the country begging me to come back. But I also wanted to know that he wanted me to stay badly enough for him to do that. So I told him that. I told him I needed that from him. I needed him to pursue me the way he did when we were dating (he told me on our first date that he knew I was going to be the mother of his children one day- so he set the bar a little high). And I wanted to get back to the person I was when we were dating. I was tired of holding on to resentment- I wanted to be happy again.
Therapy helped. Friends who’d survived the same thing helped. But at the root of it all was deciding that I had a good husband, and I really did have a good marriage. It just got off track and we both made terrible mistakes. We’ve all done unforgivable things in our lives, but there is nothing that is above redemption. I learned in therapy to say “this is a boundary for me: I’ve forgiven you for this happening in the past, but you must understand that it can never happen again.” We said that to each other- and we hold each other accountable to that. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we continue to hurt one another, but it does mean the weight of past indiscretions is lifted from us both. That we don’t have to carry the burden of all our previous failures and mistakes. We’ve both turned from what was pulling us apart- and we’re honest with each other when we’re struggling now. We can be vulnerable and say “hey, I know you mean…but what I’m hearing when you say that is…” We’re talking to each other and calling each other out when things are clearly brewing under the surface, and we’re quicker to forgive the little things now too. Shortcuts don’t save marriages- but honesty and respect and forgiveness and a deep, deep love for the other person can. My friend said she couldn’t imagine a world where we weren’t together- and neither can I. I stayed because I genuinely love this man more than anything, and I can’t imagine my life or my family without him. I can’t get back the years that bitterness took from me, but I can make the commitment that from now on we will work together as a team to build each other up- and to call each other out when we’re failing to do that.
It’s been a little over two years since our hardest trial came to the surface, and I’d face it again in a heartbeat knowing how the whole thing turns out. If you’re in a hard chapter now, know that you’re not alone. You aren’t the only person who’s been there. And if you’re finding yourself staring at the prospect of making a big decision that will have a lifelong impact on you and your family, ask yourself: is this person just a bad match for me? And maybe the answer will be yes. But if it isn’t, if there’s still a good person in there, and you have really, really hard work ahead of you, know this: forgiveness is hard work, but it doesn’t cost anything, and it pays its dividends in the weight that it lifts from your heart. Whether your battle is with your spouse, or a family member, a friend, or someone else, know that carrying the heavy burden of internalized anger is a hard load to bear. There is true beauty in forgiveness, whatever the outcome is.
*and as a post-script: I want to add that forgiveness doesn’t always mean staying together. My oldest daughter is currently living with my ex-husband- something I could never have been okay with if I hadn’t come to a place of forgiveness with him, and he with me. We couldn’t stay married- the pain was too deep and our issues were not solvable- but we can be great co-parents to our children. We couldn’t do that, though, if either of us had held onto the pain we caused one another over the course of our marriage. Forgiveness is a gift whenever and however you give it. Even 10 or more years after the trauma that requires it.*