I am blessed with a wonderful, happy, easy marriage. I want to be sensitive to the fact that this is not the case for everyone and so I don’t often write about how smooth it has been for us, but today, it seems appropriate and good to reflect a bit on this amazing partnership we’ve been given.
A few months back, Elizabeth, a mentor of mine, met my mother-in-law for the first time. As they chatted, Elizabeth mentioned that she’d never met Jonathan, that she’d like to know more about him. My mother-in-law smiled. “They make a good team,” she said. Elizabeth grinned as she recounted their conversation to me.
“You make a good team,” she repeated, and I nodded in agreement. We do.
I spoke to a group of young women recently, high school and college students, many of whom come from rough backgrounds, from broken families, from places of pain. As a part of my introduction, I told them that Jonathan and I would be celebrating eight years of marriage come July. Several girls expressed surprise at this.
“Eight years? Really? You seem more like newlyweds!”
I smiled, shrugged.
“Thanks. That’s a compliment,” I said. “We’re happy together.”
At that, one of them blurted, “But why?”
I laughed, I admit, at the shocked tone of her voice, at the way she asked, but it’s a valid question, one worth contemplating. Put on the spot, I talked some about having a shared love for God, a desire to serve Him. I talked about being friends first, about knowing each other well before we said, “I do.” I mentioned having mutual hobbies and interests, told them about wanting to serve one you love. I explained how crucial respect and communication are.
The advice I gave was sound, true, important. And yet, in my eagerness to speak into the lives of these women, to say something worth hearing, to give them words that might prevent unnecessary heartache, I wonder if I told the full story.
On Saturday, at the end of my morning run, I stopped by the creek at the base of our property and picked the first blackberries of the season. I savored one or two, licking my lips to enjoy every last taste of summer, of love, then cupped the rest in my hand. I carried them up the hill, placed them on the counter in front of Jonathan as he put the finishing touches on breakfast.
“Look! I brought you a present,” I announced. “Eight blackberries. One for each year of marriage.”
He popped one in his mouth, made a face. “Wow. That’s a tart blackberry!”
I told him maybe it was an analogy for marriage, that some years were tart and some sweet, but all are delicious, and he threw a mock hurt look in my direction. “Why would you say that? Why would you say some years weren’t sweet?”
In the past eight years, Jonathan and I have talked long and often about what makes a good relationship work, about why our marriage is happy when so many are not. And always, always, we come up short, come up with an answer that is unsatisfactory. Despite the warnings that marriage is not easy, that it requires hard work, despite pastors and relationship experts who tell us that fights are normal, that strife is inevitable, our path has been smooth. We rarely fight. The time we invest in our relationship, in each other, rarely feels like work, like effort. Marriage has come easily for us.
On our first anniversary, Jonathan grinned at me, referenced the popular truism that the first year of marriage is the hardest. “Well, babe, if that was the worst, I can’t wait to see what the next years will bring! Because it was pretty amazing.”
Later, we were told that the middle of the first decade – years five, six, seven – are especially difficult, that these are the times when you become complacent, when habits form, when you begin to take each other for granted. While those years certainly encompassed the hardest period of my life to date, my marriage was not the cause of the heartache, of the pain – it was one of the anchors that helped me endure.
I know that the decades stretch before us, that there are many long years to come in which we might face hardship and heartache and hassle, that we may yet face things which will place strains on this love that we bear for each other. I know others’ roads are rockier than our own, that marriage does not come so easily for everyone, that there are those who struggle to communicate, to serve, to live well together with the one they love. I know relationship hurt is real, and is one of the deepest pains one might experience.
And yet, today, on our eighth anniversary, I can say this: I love being married to this man. I love it, and I cannot imagine a different life, could not hope for a better partner with whom to share this journey. Life has not always been easy, but my marriage to him has been. It feels, and has always felt, normal and natural. We are happy together. Happier than we were when we started dating, happier than we were when we wed eight years ago. Happier than we deserve.
Which brings me back to the question: why are we happy together? Somehow, my laundry list of healthy habits and behaviors lacks something, leaves something wanting. More and more, I’ve come to believe that all of my “thou shalts” when it comes to relationships are actually the effects of a vibrant marriage instead of its cause. We don’t have a strong love, a strong marriage, because we do our best to serve each other; we do our best to serve each other because we have a strong love, a strong marriage.
While there are attitudes and feelings we can strive to develop, while choosing to spend time together, choosing to worship together, choosing to do life together strengthens our bond, while communication and shared interests and respect are vital, underneath it all, underneath our desire for these things and our willingness to pursue them, I find one thing: grace.
Grace. After all, we’ve done nothing to deserve this relationship, nothing that would guarantee smooth sailing. Many from homes as healthy as those of our childhood, many who followed similar paths to marriage as we did, find themselves in places of difficulty, find themselves facing marital discord, tension, divorce. Marriages, even good ones, are not always (or even often?) easy. And so this love we share, the ease with which we slipped into this married life is grace, pure grace.
It’s an uncomfortable answer, this, because we want to work for things, to deserve them. If marking these check boxes guarantees a healthy relationship, we know exactly how to achieve it, know exactly what to do to predict future success. Grace, though, is wild, unpredictable. Why should I receive it when others do not? Why should I get this love, this marriage, this life, when others do not? And what can I do to prevent future tension, future difficulty, future heartache?
I have no answer to these questions. For now, all I can do is to use this gift I have been given to grow and to give and to learn, to give praise and thanks to the Giver of all things good, and to pray that He might continue to shower His grace upon us, that our love, our teamwork, our joy in each other might continue.
“They make a good team,” my mother-in-law observed, when asked about her son, about me. “They make a good team.”
And we do. By the grace of God, we do.