I’ve got love on my mind. While that may seem like a minor miracle, given the state of the world right now, the fact that I’m on my way back from attending a small family wedding on the West Coast may have something to do with it. You could be forgiven for assuming that the kind of love I’m referring to here is all about hearts, rainbows, and confetti, but you’d be wrong. Oh sure, there is something incredibly sweet and hope-filled about two young people, aged nineteen (him) and twenty (her), committing their lives to each other—for better or worse—even if they didn’t explicitly state that in their self-penned vows. To the seasoned married folk at the ceremony, the sincerity of the promise may sound naive, given many young couples have no idea how much work it takes to have a thriving and joy-filled marriage. While that naivete might be true for many (most?) couples who are tying the knot for the first time, I happen to know that this is not the case for this couple. They are young but not naive. They have already worked through their share of challenges and bumps in the road. Jeff and I have been working with them for the last five months to prepare for marriage, and I can promise you it has not been all butterfly kisses. While I feel quite certain that there will be many more “for better or worse” moments in their future, they already have demonstrated a far greater commitment to dealing with their “stuff” than couples who have been married for years. Good for them! They have learned that true love is hard work.
Perhaps you’re wondering what “stuff” a young couple—each from a loving Christian home—might have to work through prior to marriage. The answer is the same thing that every couple should ideally deal with— healing emotional hurts and wounds. What? You never thought to do that before you got married? Well, I didn’t either, but I wish I had. That could have saved Jeff and me a lot of heartache and pain. Instead, we spent years reacting to each other’s fears and hurts and building dysfunctional communication patterns to work around our potential triggers—not that we even knew what those were at the time. Had I understood that Jeff’s quirky habit of disappearing in books was, at times, a sign he was disconnecting from his emotions and my anxiety-driven perfectionism was masking unresolved trauma, we may have been able to avoid the painful process of unpicking the hurtful ways we have reacted to each other. Our hope is that the young couples we work with will learn from our mistakes. I wish the same for you too, dear reader. Unless we are willing to look at ourselves, ideally with curiosity and kindness, we risk bringing the messiness of our brokenness into every relationship we have—not just marriage.
“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matt 7:5
Jeff and I have learned a tremendous amount about ourselves and each other over thirty-seven years, most especially since moving into a twenty-eight-foot Air Stream. Thankfully, the couples we work with have benefited from what we’ve learned. Not only do we teach couples how to identify and share their emotions with others, but we also include inner healing/heart-healing prayer in all pre-marriage counseling that we do. Although we have no illusion that the relatively short amount of time we spend with engaged couples is one-stop-shopping when it comes to healing and wholeness, I believe this process has been a critical component of the beautiful yet messy work of trying to prepare two imperfect humans to share their lives together. That was the case for our most recent pre-marriage graduates. And—what they learned is relevant to us all.
Our couples have learned that sulking or retreating into their shell is every bit as damaging to a relationship as exploding in anger. They understand that a need to control every detail of the planning process—for a wedding or anything else—could be a sign that fear may be the root of the problem. The same may be true when one or both struggle with a chronic inability to make decisions. They also now know that the foundation for a good sex life is emotional intimacy (in-to-me-you-see), not slinky lingerie or bedroom gymnastics. (I’m not saying those things are bad; it’s just that they are poor substitutes for what is needed for an ongoing and satisfying physical relationship.) Although these couples enter married life far from perfect, they now have a good idea of what to do when issues pop up or problems become patterns. 1.) Tell someone about what is going on and ask for help. 2.) Look for the root of the issue. (I would also add on the suggestion to pray, but having a robust prayer life is a given, in my mind.)
Whether you are married or single, this is good advice, period. Too bad many of us don’t admit when we need help and/or are content to merely deal with the symptoms rather than the root of problematic behaviors. You don’t have to be married to struggle in relationships. We all do. No one grew up in a family that got it right all the time, so struggles are inevitable. Pain begets pain until it is healed. There is no shame in that; it’s part of the human condition. Rather than trying to act like everything is okay, the door to healing (and strong relationships) is to first admit that things could be better.
Sharing your struggles with even one other person can bring a measure of healing to your heart. Amy Julia Becker, author of To Be Made Well, learned this truth when she began to share her personal and relationship struggles with her yoga instructor, Anne. She writes in her book, “Healing began as something passive—when I was sitting with Anne and telling my story, I felt relief come upon me, like grace.” I can almost hear Becker’s sigh of relief as I read that sentence, can’t you? The fact is, we need each other; we can’t find what we’re looking for alone. So, here’s my question: Are you willing to share your struggles with someone this week? If so, with whom?
*We will pick up this topic next week, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! If you are married, what is one thing you wish you knew before you tied the knot? If you are not married, what is one relationship challenge that you face?