This month was our twentieth wedding anniversary. On the actual date of our anniversary we were driving something like twelve hours from Wisconsin to Ontario, on our way home east from our trip out west. We didn't celebrate or do anything special, we were in the midst of three straight days of driving.
These are the words I posted to instagram on that day:
Twenty years ago I married my best friend and life's companion. Two decades later we "celebrate" our anniversary by driving back from our trip out west with our 3 teenagers. It was an unremarkable day except for driving through 4 states and 1 province. It was a normal day in that we enjoyed each other's company; shared laughter, conflicting opinions and thoughtful discussions.
Sharing such tight quarters, a compact SUV (we are now considering a bigger vehicle) with our three nearly grown kids has been trying and tiring for the last 3 days of driving, but the fact that we all still love each other and consider each other friends as well as family, and would even consider a trip of this magnitude, is as much a testament to our 20 year union as anything else.
There was no celebration to the day except the gratitude in my heart for what we have built together: a committed partnership in which we created and continue to cultivate a thriving family. A twenty year anniversary that is as humble as it is honest.
Last summer I wrote a post to commemorate our nineteen year anniversary. That post shared a few of the things I was struggling with in our marriage. I never published it because Damien wasn't comfortable with publicly sharing some of the things I'd written about our relationship.
This is such a tricky space for a memoirist writer, how to write my own story, which is inextricably tied up with my loved ones, without crossing the boundary of their personal privacy. I want to be a safe relationship, a welcoming space for my loved ones and I don't want them to fear what I may write.
I wrestle with this often when it comes to my children, my growth and stories of self are so wrapped up in their growth. And I imagine as they leave the nest and make their own homes and I become mother-in-law and grandmother (not soon mind you, but eventually) the tension will be worse, not better.
I'm largely unable to write about marriage to the depth and detail I would like. And if I can't do depth and detail I'd rather stay mostly silent, sharing the triumphs and struggles with close friends and family. But I bemoan my inability to write about my marriage on the blog for the very reason that not enough real-life, long haul marriage stories are written and shared online. There are books but those are published after the fact, the good or the bad having already happened, the author usually looking back.
What I like about blogging memoirs are their immediacy and intimacy. This is happening now. And let's be honest, when I struggle in my marriage, when it's hard, it's nice to know others experience the same tensions and turmoil.
Twenty years does not feel long when I look at my parents forty plus years of marriage, or my aunt and uncle celebrating fifty years this month or my grandparents sixty-four year union. I am so blessed to come from a family of strong marriages. Divorce is rare in my immediate and extended family. I come from a family culture that values faith, marriage and family and recognizes the incredibly hard and satisfying work of staying together.
Long-love stories are lived, in the mundane and marvelous moments, all over the globe. They are lived in your home and in mine, in grandparents, parents, siblings, our neighbors and our children. They are common, and yet, marriage requires a level of sacrifice and fidelity that feels uncommon in our culture.
I talk to close friends about their marriages; the compromises and heartbreaks; the incredible losses we suffer as we go through life, and yet, the potential for maturation and growth, friendship, fulfilment, sex, and companionship that marriage offers us.
I see my marriage, and the fruit of my marriage, as one of life's greatest gifts. But the uncommon level of dedication and commitment (to a higher power - something beyond ourselves in which to believe), each other, self, and our offspring that is required to nurture a marriage is staggering. You don't know this when you get married at twenty. I didn't.
Statistically, marriage has as much chance of failing as succeeding. Those are not great odds. And even when people stay together there is no guarantee of a loving, growing union with mutual support and satisfaction.
I see so much pain around me in the realm of marriages and this makes it hard to share the deeply personal truth and experience of my own marriage, in which we are committed till death do us part, and committed to growing together.
Telling this story - the mundane and marvelous; the sacrifice, loss, and heartbreaks; the depth of commitment to God, self, each other and offspring; the fabulousness of sex, friendship and companionship; the evolution of dreams and desires; the process of personal and marital maturation - in an honest, helpful, kind and beautiful voice is the hardest writing for me.
I get why others write about marriage and long-love in poetry and metaphor even though flowery language frustrates me. "Tell it like it really is", I moan. Tell me about your sleepless nights and your aching heart. Tell me about your lost dreams and new insights. Tell me about choosing self over other, choosing other over self. Don't speak in sunsets and flowers what sometimes feels like mud and misery. Tell me something real.
The older I get the more I realize how different everyone is. Damien and I make choices in our marriage that could possibly sink the ship of other marriages. We are as unique as every other couple is unique, and I think this is both beautiful and baffling. I continue to be astounded by what we learn about our ourselves and each other through the endlessly iterative process of being married.
Based on the unique combination of "us", who we are - our personality types, family-of-origins, cultural backgrounds, spiritual beliefs, core values and needs - we arrive at a way of being married that works for us, but still we must define and refine what works, over and over and over again (the iterative part).
When I was a young woman I thought that being married would protect me from certain things. I wanted a good life, a happy life. There was a fairy-tale bent to my dreams but who can help it.
I don't blame society, media or Disney, it is our own (slightly misguided) hearts that seek a mate to complete ourselves. Seek someone in whom we can be lost in love.
We have weaknesses, failings, losses, hurts, deficiencies, etc and it is not surprising then that we would seek an "other" to assuage these gaps in our life.
The human story is one of brokenness and the effort to repair that brokenness with love.
I didn't feel very broken as an eighteen year old meeting Damien. In fact, I didn't understand brokenness, shame, loss, anxiety or a lot of the difficult human emotions that were yet to come in my journey. I was well loved, overly confident, controlling. I viewed life through a mostly black and white lens. Things, people, ideas were either in or out, right or wrong. I wasn't very nuanced.
At twenty I felt mature enough to marry and establish a home, but I was young. I don't disparage my youthful enthusiasm, my confidence or even my misdirected visions of marriage.
Twenty years later we still love each other and are committed to each other; but that doesn't make life rosy or easy, or fix all the hurts and disappointments.
I have attempted over the years to avoid the pain of emotional discomfort, I daresay this has been a significant unconscious aim in my life. In addition, I struggle with insecurity and anxiety. This is the "stuff" I bring to our union. Damien brings his own stuff, and together we muddle through personal, marital and familial growth, desperately trusting (is there any other kind of trust?) that the pain we cause each other and our mistakes as partners and parents will be covered by God's grace.
Love does not make pain go away. In fact, even our well-intentioned attempts at love will bring pain into our lives, and there is nothing for that. Pain and loss are part of the human condition, no matter what choices you make in life.
What love does is it helps bear the burden and the heart ache. It actually hurts to know someone is holding you in love through your pain because your pain causes them pain, and I hate to be the source of other people's pain, grief and worry. But love does that, it sits with discomfort, it shows up for situations that are hard to resolve. It listens and acts when necessary, and forgives when actions were more hurtful than helpful. Love assumes the best.
The beauty of love, and by extension marriage, is that it doesn't solve all the discomfort, pain and suffering (though I do believe love in its purest form, as communion with God, does heal all of that), but marriage gives us someone with which to share the difficulties, and the blessings of life.
My big lesson of marriage is that you don’t find someone who takes away pain, frustration, grievance and all awful things from your life, you commit to someone who will share it with you.
It must be said that Damien and I haven't yet had to share anything truly awful. The death of a child, the intense suffering of a child, an addiction, mental illness, a debilitating disease, accident or illness that changes the nature of our physical relationship with each other, an infidelity or deep betrayal.
I am naive in these matters. I am happy to be ignorant in these pains. But our marriage is not immune from the potential for these sorrows; the losses will we face and those we fear are only bearable because of our hope in new life and resurrection.
We trust in each other, but personal experience, divorce rates, and unhappy unions around us prove that we are falliable. Ultimately, we need to trust in something bigger than us.
Movies like Jerry McGuire have it all wrong, Tom Cruise and his "you complete me".
Other people don’t complete us, they don’t fill the need in our lives that God alone can fill.
That loneliness, insecurity, that gnawing ache in your gut that you think will be resolved with marriage, a better house, a baby, a better job, the right medication, essential oil, or herb; we are always striving for the next best thing. I am always striving for the next best thing. But not even the most beautiful thing you imagine or want, be it financial success, a marriage with hot sex, or a simple cozy home, will fill that ache.
I think the ache, that core need, manifests differently for different people.
But regardless of how our core need manifests itself - the need for security, freedom, significance, purpose, etc. the answer, the solution, is ultimately found in a relationship with the Divine. And this side of heaven it is a need that is only partially met.
A relationship with God, a Divine communion will be part of the filling, but even then we will never be completely satisfied here. How can we be completely comfortable and at ease in a world with so much pain and suffering?
I love, love, love what Anne Lamott says (I got to hear her say this at the lecture I attended in May. What a happy day!!)
“My work is mostly about saying the culture’s going to tell you that there’s all this happiness in success and marriage and social standing, and I can tell you that it’s a lie.
“The joy, the peace will be an inside job. And it’s going to be a spiritual path of one sort or another.
Like I wrote in my journal, sitting starstruck and in-love in the audience that night, "it's an inside job".
I'm pretty sure that when I got married I looked to Damien to fulfill needs of mine that weren't his to fulfill, especially my needs to feel emotionally connected and secure. One of the biggest lessons for me has been that ultimately it's not Damien's responsibility to complete me in those areas.
It's an inside job, and it's a spiritual path.
God gave me Damien to communicate God's love for me. God gave Damien me to communicate God's love for Damien. God has gifted us with each other to communicate love to one another. We do our best, but our best is not enough to fill that space. It's not enough to fill the ache, the need that only a communion with God will fill.
So too, our best is not "enough" for our children. They also have a spiritual journey to take in which they'll learn it's an inside job.
We share burdens, responsibilities, tasks, and sorrows but we can’t remove them. We share our bodies, our hearts and minds but we can't be complete each other. Two broken beings do not make a whole.
We are so human. Only the grace of God is enough.
Grace that saves us from ourselves. Grace that teaches us, in love, the hard lessons we need to learn. Grace that says you are flawed and misdirected but you are loved regardless.
This is the gift of twenty years of marriage. Not a special ring or a special trip, those are nice but they aren't the prize, the sweetest fruit.
The sweetest fruit is the grace of God in our lives. The grace of God that says I know you're broken and messed up but here's a partner to help bring the personal growth, change, and transformation you need, not to complete you but to help you.
The grace of God that sends the Spirit to smooth the way between us and work within us, over and over and over again. The grace of God that gives us the patience to let the Spirit do this work. The grace of God which enables us to truly love each other, with eyes wide open to all our faults and failings. The grace of God into which we entrust our children. The grace of God into which we ultimately entrust our union, and our love.
PS. I am about to get all smoochy here and declare my love for Damien, but the truth is these public declarations mean more to me than they do to him. I don't think he'll even read this. Even so, I can't help but say the following.
Damien, you're the one for me. I chose you and I choose you (and the family we have made) every single day. I don't choose you with a twenty year old's hopeful vision of marriage, I choose you with a forty year old's hopeful vision of marriage. I choose to see the best in you, the best in me, the best in us. You still are the one to kindle the fire in my belly and so yes, I choose you with my human heart, body, and soul but I also choose you with the help of the Holy Spirit who is doing a work in us. You are for me, and I am for you. Always.