A Tale of Two Loves (Part 5): A Love that Breaks

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… unconstrained, for lack of a better word.

Today it has been exactly three years since my divorce hearing. Before I left for the courthouse that day, I changed my Facebook profile photo to one from our wedding day that I had always particularly liked. I posted it because it reminded me of what I was grieving, of the days when I remembered being happy together.

Facebook has done its Facebookly duty and reminded me of this photo every year since. I don’t remember which year I noticed—maybe last year, when I was realizing some hard truths about our marriage?—I noticed that Josh didn’t actually look happy in the photo. I’d already begun to notice sadness in more recent photos—the tense eyes and drawn lips in face I knew so well from thirteen years of marriage and five years of friendship and dating before that. But heavy photo documentation of our relationship only went as far back as Facebook, and, in my mind, only back to the point when things turned. I assumed he looked happier before that, although I don’t think I bothered to look. A story I’d told myself was that almost every marriage goes through the “seven year itch”. Some survive and some don’t. Ours had gone into a slow death spiral around then, and the photos I see all the time were a reflection of decline.

But here I am, year after year confronted with a photo from the very beginning of our marriage where I look happy and he does not. How did I not see it before? A lot of soul searching has led me to one conclusion—I didn’t want to. And, to be completely fair, I don’t think he wanted me to, either. He did propose, he did say “I do.” There were always assertions of love and affection and a desire for marriage (and physical chemistry that I thought backed it up.) Hindsight being what it is, of course I now see that there were other signs of his unhappiness besides his smile on our wedding day. But he did say that he wanted the same thing I did.

Sometimes I get angry about that. It was, after all, a lie to tell me he wanted something that he didn’t. I get mad that he let me continue to believe in a marriage long after he’d lost faith in it (if he’d ever had it to begin with). I get angry that he looked for ways to be happy outside of our relationship when I should have been enough without telling me the truth of it. But the fact is we both looked at problems in our marriage without seeing each other.

I faced the problems in our marriage by trying to make it a better place to be, by making myself into the best wife possible. I read all of the books. I did everything everyone said to do to try to be the thing he SHOULD want. I worked my tail off to help him through grad school. I learned to be a “keeper at home”, keep house better, cook better, be watchful of what he said he wanted. I built this artifice of what OUGHT to be, and squeezed myself smaller and smaller to try to fit in it, hoping to give him room to join me there.

What I didn’t do was learn to see him as a human being. To see his hurt where he was. To see when he was unhappy without fearing what it meant for “us”. To continue to be his friend even when I was his girlfriend and his wife. I learned a model of marriage built on “shoulds” and “ought tos” that ignored the person—the people–both of us, him and me. I built my palace of obligation and hoped he would come live in it with me.

He never did. It’s no surprise to me now that it wasn’t very enticing—I wasn’t happy there myself. He escaped in his own ways. And the end I burst through the shell I’d built trying to make myself into something I wasn’t, someone I thought would be more lovable. Ironically, burying myself more and more in my desperation to be seen.

In my fighting for marriage and his running away and hiding from it, we missed what should have been essential: We missed each other. Focusing on what the relationship was (or was not), neither of us saw the person right in front of us.

I have every right to be angry over things he did and how he treated me, and often I still am. But more and more, when I see this photo, I’m just sad. He was my friend before he was my boyfriend and then my husband. In trying to fit marriage into our relationship, we stopped being friends to each other. In trying to squeeze into a box that promised happiness and God’s blessing, we squeezed out our best opportunities to connect.

Unconstrained love is so simple. Love the person AS THEY ARE. No preconditions. Not based on what they do, but who they are. Love their motives more than their actions, believe in their best selves. Remind them that you still believe in their best selves even when they fail, but love the failed person as they are, where they are.

Unconstrained love is simple, but it is not easy. It sticks its neck out beyond the safety of convention and social norms, beyond what I want out of the relationship, pushing everything out of the way to see the person as they are. It doesn’t shy away from the pain that’s inevitable with relationships because it knows the the love and true knowledge of the person there is worth it.  Unconstrained love looks absolutely treacherous until you know that once you get past the fear of what could and maybe even will happen, real life begins where love flourishes.

When I look at that picture, I remember that it comes down to this: unconstrained love for my husband would have meant setting aside my fear that our marriage would end so I could see him where he was. He was hiding, but I could have seen it anyway if I’d wanted to. (That’s the beauty and the curse of marriage–you really can’t hide.) I couldn’t handle that, I kept pushing what I thought ought to be, and it did end. Now I’ve been through it: I sacrificed relationship to feed my fears, then I saw my fears become reality anyway. Next time I hope I can do better. Next time and every day.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 4): The Ghost in the Gap

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. Last week I wrote about my difficulty in speaking hope.

There was another divide I believe prevented my ex from hearing my hope. Sure, I didn’t speak hope often enough. But even when I did, there was often something in between us that filtered what I said and did before it got to his heart. That thing was the story he was telling himself about our interactions.

My ex was in grad school for most of our marriage. I remember once when I was frustrated by how long it was taking him to finish, he told me, “But I’m doing this because YOU WANTED ME TO.”

Now, I never once dreamed up a scheme for him to go to grad school. I have no recollection of wanting him to get a PhD. Or, rather, I wanted it because it was his dream. But it was never something I would have dreamed of asking for myself or for us.

They are strangely strong, the stories we tell ourselves about what people think. As a deeply spiritual person, it makes sense to me that these stories originate from an entity the Bible calls the Father of Lies and the Accuser. If there is someone out to destroy our souls, what better way to do it than by whispering lies into our minds about ourselves and each other:

“You are not enough and this person knows it.”

“You’ll never be enough until you can [fill in the blank: Lose more weight. Keep your house clean.]”

We are really adept at repeating those lies to ourselves ad nauseum until they become part of our identity. I never really recognized my own negative self-talk until my life hit the skids during my divorce. I mean, as a good, supposedly self-aware citizen of the 21st century, I was aware of the concept. But I didn’t recognize it in myself. One day I began to notice that I told myself stories about things people would think of me that almost never became reality. “Better sweep up the dust bunnies or your dinner guests will notice and have a bad time because they won’t be able to think about anything else.” Or, “Everyone is noticing that stupid thing you do at work and thinking about it all day.”

I kept track once and I had a thought like that every seven minutes on average. That’s nearly ten times an hour, every waking hour of the day. And of course 99% of these thoughts never amounted to anything. But that 1% is a bitch. It’s enough to make me feel like the other 99% is right. “I was SO RIGHT when I suspected Joann would hate my hair. And that’s just the one time she happened to SAY something. I bet she’s thinking it all the friggin time. And I bet Jim-Bob and Matilda are too.” Suddenly, being right 1% of the time makes this self- talk essential to my survival. I learn to lean on it to anticipate bad things people might say and protect myself from them.

If I see my negative self-talk as a worthwhile protective instinct, I’m bound to use it to protect myself in the relationships closest to me. And it’s in my closest relationships where I are more likely to have it reinforced by the occasional snippy comment or “constructive criticism”. If I’ve already talked myself into believing people think I’m worthless, any negative comment can send me reeling.

I’ve heard that it takes seven positive interactions to make up for one negative one. And it’s no wonder. Most of us are working overtime to convince ourselves that we’re not enough. We’re operating at a deficit before our loved ones even open their mouths.

I never asked my ex to go to grad school. But the facts of what I actually wanted don’t matter that much. He told himself a story that I wanted him to go to grad school, and he heard everything I said on the subject through that filter. Every complaint, every criticism, anything I did that touched on this sore spot for him was augmented by this idea that he was only trying to do what I wanted him to do. There’s a gap, and then there’s the inadequacy-whispering ghost who lives there, telling us lies about ourselves, lies about our loved ones, amping up our insecurities until they’re the only thing we hear.

It’s amazing how quickly this inadequacy-whispering ghost travels from person to person. Nothing trips feelings of inadequacy like feelings of inadequacy being directed at you (or even blamed on you). If I see a loved one hurting, I immediately blame myself: Was it something I did? Something I said? And if they’re up in my face telling me it was, that seals the deal. The only thing that will get me spun up faster than suspecting I’m not enough is someone TELLING me I’m not. I don’t know about you, but this is the source of the majority of the arguments I’ve had with friends and loved ones. It’s not about the toilet paper roll facing the wrong way, it’s not about whether you called when I wanted you to, it’s about what it MEANS about how you feel about me. I start voicing that, the person I care about says those things don’t really MEAN what I think they do…And around we go.

The lying ghost in the gap is adept at pitting us against each other when our fight is not against one another but against the lies he is telling us. (Ephesians 6:12)

Was it fair to me that my ex thought I was the reason he was in grad school? Not at all. And I put most of my energy into arguing with him about how unfair it was. But his belief in it was a fact I needed to face when I related to him. And it’s that belief that I butt up against over and over in my relationships with other people. I can focus on the unfairness of the story they are telling themselves, or I can help re-narrate the story. Constrained love insists on my right to be understood (which is a real thing. And valid.) I believe unconstrained love can set that aside and fight the ghost in the gap alongside the person I care about. Which do you think is easier in the moment? Which do you think is more powerful? And ultimately, which do you think most effectively paves the way for me to be truly and deeply heard, anyway?

It is NOT WRONG to insist on what you know to be true, to defend yourself. In some cases people’s self-deceit is so strong that you cannot come alongside and help them re-narrate the story. There is a time for digging in your heels. But that is a final battle time, when you’ve realized that the person is so lost to the ghost in the gap that you cannot pull them back. It is not the the starting point, and it cannot be the day-to-day operation of relationships. Day in and day out we are built to fight the ghost together, side by side.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 3): Hope May the Hardest Thing I Know

This is the third in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love, A Tale of Two Loves. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. 🙂

The day we decided to divorce, my ex-husband said something that has stuck in my head despite my best efforts to forget it. He told me that he knew when I asked him to move out that I’d already given up on him.

I didn’t respond when he said it. But if I had, I might have said something like this (and yes, I’m definitely this eloquent in real life):

“I didn’t give up on you when I asked you to move out. I did it with the hope and expectation that you could do better. That you would fight for our marriage, fight for me. And you didn’t. In spite of your friends and family encouraging you to. You gave up on us long before I did, and I couldn’t pull you back. We’re here because I could only believe in you more than you believed in yourself for so long.”

Looking back, I don’t remember saying any of those things. Not then, not ever.

I’m not rethinking my divorce. I still think it was the inevitable choice. I’d tried everything I was capable of at the time. But I would be a fool if I didn’t think about what I could have done differently. What I should have done differently because it was the right thing to do, even if it might not have been enough to save my marriage. What he said has stuck with me because his heart was in it. And because, in spite of what I tell myself, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t wrong.

Of course, let me be very quick to point out that I wasn’t wrong either. I did have hope, in spite of what he thought. I still do. I have hope for who I know he can be. I still believe in what we could have been together.

So where was the disconnect?

What I’m learning has everything to do with the flavor of hope, and what I did with it.

Last post I wrote about fear being like a rock in your shoe. It hobbles hope. It hobbles love.

Hope with fear in it isn’t shared. I keep it to myself.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t trust people.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t stick its neck out.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t talk about the hope itself. It sees the gap between what is and what could be and describes that.

Hope with fear in it looks for people and things to blame for not being fulfilled.

Hope with fear in it is so fragile that I don’t trust anyone else to help me hold it.

Hope with fear in it looks for anything BUT people to trust. Believe in the institution of marriage. Believe in conventional relationship roles. (Or believe in NOT marriage. Believe in eliminating gender roles. Anything but relying on the person.)

Hope with fear in it tries to control behavior.

Falling in love is an interesting phenomon. A lot of people talk about the foolishness of it. Don’t lose your head over someone who doesn’t check the right boxes, or you’re asking for trouble. Don’t lose yourself in your emotions. You’ll regret it.

I’m not advocating throwing good judgment out the window, but I’m starting to think that what happens when you first fall in love is a gift to the rest of the relationship, not a weird lapse in judgment. In those early days, our eyes aren’t clouded—they’re clearly seeing what we hope for the person, what we know they can be. Early love is when we catch the vision for what could be. Our heart sees without hurt. When things get harder later on, it’s not necessarily because we lacked good judgment to begin with but because we’re encountering the inevitable gap between what we are and what we could be. Our gaps are where we hurt each other.

Hope with fear in it thinks the gap is the trajectory.

Fearless hope thinks the gap is an obstacle we overcome together.

Hope with fear in it talks about the pain points.

Fearless hope talks about the goal.

Hope with fear says, “You’re not the same person I fell in love with.”

Fearless hope says, “I see your potential even when you’ve lost sight of it.”

Hope with fear in it builds walls and convoluted workarounds to avoid the same pain twice.

Fearless hope knows to expect the same pain several times in the healing process, and counts it as worthwhile.

Brene Brown writes that she and her husband have an old subway sign hanging in their home: “Mind the Gap.” Fear with love in it screams about the gap. Fearless love knows that it is a pain point for everyone involved and treats the gap gingerly, focuses on where we are going.

My ex wasn’t wrong. I had hope for him, but I didn’t speak to him about it. When I thought I was, I wasn’t talking about the goal but the gap. I held hope but blamed him for not fulfilling it. What good is hope when you keep it to yourself? Or worse, isolate yourself in it to protect yourself from the pain when it goes unfulfilled? Or worst, fight against someone over your hope for them?

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:7) 

You Asked, I Deliver: Some Advice About Divorce

I got an email this week that started, “I have a friend who wants out of her marriage, or for him to shape up, but feels like as a Christian she has no option for divorce…” I get these questions a lot. As this same friend put it, “Being open and honest must get you a lot of feedback and questions. Like owning a pick up and always being the person who helps move.” That sums it up pretty well.

I’ve been hesitant to write and advice-style blog post about divorce for many, many reasons. But… I’ve been asked this often enough, there are a few common threads that I want to write about publicly. I’m addressing Christian women who feel like they’ve exhausted their options for fixing their marriages, because that’s who I typically hear from. If it applies in other scenarios, great. Either way, I’d love to hear whether this is helpful.

Dear Sister,

I’m sorry you are hurting. I can guess that you’re hurting badly because you’ve turned to me, and we live far away from one another or we’re not close friends, which means you feel like you have nowhere else to turn. It probably also means this problem has been going on for a long time. I’m sorry. I know the pain you feel. First of all, know this: You are priceless. Your presence in anyone’s life is a gift, whether they acknowledge it or not. Jesus died TO BE WITH YOU. That’s the end result of His sacrifice that we don’t hear enough about. He died for our sins SO HE COULD BE WITH US. He values our company that much.

I’m also hearing from you because you love God, and you just don’t know how to reconcile your situation with your love for Him. Bless you for wanting to do the right and God-honoring thing, for having a heart that desires unity with God and unity with your spouse in spite of extremely difficult circumstances. And when I say “bless you,” I mean just that. God will bless you, even though it doesn’t feel like it right now. Isaiah 54 is well worth reading—the whole chapter describes God’s love for neglected and abandoned wives. It talks specifically about that feeling of being abandoned by God. I started inserting a quote here and ended up with half the chapter. Just go read it.

Now, the elephant in the room. You’ve heard it a million times, like a broken record—God hates divorce. It is in the Bible: Malachi 2:16. Go look at the context, though. If you read verses 12-16, you’ll find that God hates all the things that lead up to the divorce, too, specifically (and repeatedly) when husbands who are “faithless” and treat their wives “treacherously” (depending on the translation). Yeah, if you’re writing to me, that’s probably gonna resonate for you. The conclusion of the passage? It’s not, “Don’t get a divorce under any circumstances.” It’s, “So guard yourselves in the spirit and do not be faithless.” As always, God cares most about the heart. I say this first because I hear of SO many situations where a person acts unmarried in everything except the legal document, leaving the spouse who would rather preserve the marriage feeling bad about being the one to actually file the paperwork. That’s just straight up cowardly. If you’re the spouse trying to fix things in the face of overwhelming odds and even opposition, you have no reason to feel bad about your actions. In fact, you should be proud of what you’ve been able to accomplish even if you’re don’t succeed at saving your marriage. I also say this because it’s important to remember that the heart of God is for our hearts. Jesus said divorce had been allowed because hearts were hard. If you have a hard-hearted spouse, God sees your situation with eyes of compassion and love. He cares about your broken heart.

Marriage is hard. Anyone who has been married knows that. Marriage is also strong. It can survive unimaginably hard times. Have real talks with enough people who have been married at least fifteen years, and you’ll find out that  “dealbreakers” like infidelity and major financial malfeasance aren’t as uncommon as you might think. Couples move on from those things to have strong marriages. But trajectory matters. Intent matters. Somewhere, there is a line between someone committed to the marriage who is just having a bad day/week/month/year and someone who is actively dismantling your union. I’m not going to pretend to know where that line is. I think that is an individual judgment call, one made after a lot of prayer. But it is there. I know women who have waited for years for their husbands to come around, and they did. It happens. But there is a point at which patience with bad behavior becomes destructive to everyone involved. Destructive to the person enduring it and destructive to the person whose behavior it enables. No one wins. That kind of destructive disunity is the thing God is calling out as bad when He says he hates divorce. I don’t think God requires us to stay in marriages that are defying His design for marriage at every conceivable point.

Here is my practical advice if you’re thinking about divorce:

  • Don’t run away from God. He loves you. The fact that you are considering divorce doesn’t change that. You are probably judging yourself for the things you could have done better in your marriage or for even considering divorce, He died so that He could look past those things to walk with you toward your breathtaking potential. You feel hopeless, he has plans to give you a hope and a future. Find a good list of the ways God sees you and read it as often as possible, out loud. Victory Over the Darkness has my favorite lists. Here are the first few: I am God’s child (John 1:12). I am Christ’s friend (John 15:15). I have been justified (Romans 5:1). I am united with the Lord, and I am one spirit with Him (I Corinthians 6:17).
  • Communicate and Calibrate. Find good people you can talk to. Wise people. People whose first response is not judgment or advice. People who will listen. Most importantly, people you are comfortable being open with. I hid a lot of things in my marriage from everyone. I was ashamed, and I felt disloyal airing our dirty laundry. Also, talking about it means admitting there’s a problem. Hiding became such a habit, I didn’t even bring some things up in counseling until well after my divorce. When you don’t talk to people, it is very easy to justify really bad things in your own head. I’ve seen people overlook rampant infidelity, physical abuse, drug use, even hiding dead bodies. When you’re in your own head, it’s also really easy to overreact to things that aren’t so bad—think about the little things that can upset us like husbands who bring home the wrong kind of cheese from the store or leave the toilet seat up. I’ve seen people react more strongly to incorrect cheese than to physical abuse—no joke. The more reasonable people you talk with openly, the better idea you’ll get of whether your reaction is proportionate to what is going on.  Try to include conversation with someone who has been through divorce. No one hates divorce more than people who’ve lived through it. They’re less likely to be judgmental and often more likely to give you sound, practical advice.
  • Consider separation. It may feel like a nuclear option, but it’s not. It’s a good strategy for giving you and your spouse space to collect your thoughts and clear your heads to see the truth of the situation.
  • Take care of yourself and remember that you’re not responsible for someone else’s actions. Even if you want to try to fix things or wait for your spouse to come around, that doesn’t mean you have to put up with being treated badly. Do what you need to do to ensure your needs are met, even if that means drawing lines that your spouse is unhappy about. He may try to use your healthy boundaries to blame you for his bad behavior. If there is harmful behavior going on, allowing it to continue instead of distancing yourself from it will only make the situation worse. Enlist support, because this will be hard.
  • Look at trajectory. Ultimately, you want to see evidence of where your spouse is headed, where his heart is leading him. If he is lying and persists in it, it’s not a good sign. Honestly, I think lies are the worst wrong someone can commit in a relationship. I used to see them as secondary issues—I did a bad thing, so I’m covering it up. Bad things can be overcome by good when people are truthful. If someone continues bad behavior but is truthful about it and shows signs of trying to fix it, you might actually be able to work with that. Lies prevent that. Lies put up barriers to relationship that can only be removed by truth. Fact-finding has limited effectiveness when it comes to lies (What will you do with what you learn? Confront the liar only to have him lie some more?), but I wrote about some other ways you can identify them in a previous post.
  • Pray. Well, duh, you say. Yes. Obvious. Less obvious is to pray for insight. Every time I’ve heard of someone praying for God to show a spouse’s true heart and intentions, He has done it in ways that cannot be ignored. I never prayed for insight in my marriage, only for healing. God very gently showed me later why He didn’t answer my prayers to heal our marriage—there were things going on I didn’t know about. He knows. Yes, pray for reconciliation. But also ask God to show you what He sees, ask Him for the truth. Even the act of asking can open your eyes to things you might not see otherwise. Also, ask God to give you direction–when to be patient and when to say enough is enough.
  • Try not to hide from people. There can be a lot of shame in these sorts of situations, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. Particularly at church. If you are around people who make you feel ashamed, find other people to be with. Try not to run away from people entirely. And try not to run exclusively to people who are also in the middle of separation or divorce—misery loves company, but it’s not usually helpful for much else.
  • If you’ve done everything you can, file for divorce in good conscience. You can’t make someone stay in a marriage they don’t want to be a constructive part of, nor should you.

I love you, I love your heart. You are breathtaking and amazing, and you will come out of this stronger and more beautiful no matter what happens. I believe in you.

Amy