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The Art of Staying Married

Sometimes it takes a big blowup to remind us of the things that really matter

"My greatest achievement," wrote Sir Winston Churchill, "was convincing my wife to marry me." I know how Winston felt. But at times I think my greatest achievement is convincing my wife to keep me.

Nine years ago I was waiting in line at the grocery checkout when a bold headline jumped out at me: "Hollywood Stars Falling Out of Love." Below was a celebrity couple shown in happier days. "We just don't love each other anymore," read the caption.

I was standing there surrounded by close-ups of movie stars so I could purchase an anniversary card. Later that day Ramona and I celebrated nine years together with a round of golf and dinner—without the kids.

But two days later, I was standing in our living room, hands on my hips. "You spent how much, and on what?" I asked.

"Forty-nine dollars on clothes," Ramona repeated.

"FORTY-NINE DOLLARS! Why didn't you tell me?" I sounded angrier than I really felt.

"I did, but you were too busy reading." She was right. I remembered now.

"Uh, well … " My hands left my hips while I fumbled for a reply. "I just think that's a lot to spend on clothes right now."

"Pardon me?" Her voice was growing louder. "You buy a new car, and I can't even buy some clothes?"

"I didn't say that. I just think we need to be a little more careful right now. We just got back from a vacation at the lake and you know we needed that car and … " As things heated up I realized my wife was right. But there was no way I'd admit it. It was time for a walk.

"So I haven't been easy to live with lately," I thought. "But I'm not that bad. Maybe I feel this way because I don't love her anymore. It's like those Hollywood stars. Maybe our old candle has burned out too. Okay, I'll stay with her. But I won't speak to her."

Frederick Buechner once said, "Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you."

That night I let the sun go down on our wrath. I went to bed, smacking my lips over "grievances long past" and "confrontations still to come."

The Surprise Assignment

Early the next morning Ramona was sleeping when I left for work. My vow of silence was intact, but trouble was waiting for me at the office. My assignment for the day was to write an article on marriage.

"Be vulnerable," said the editor of the magazine I was working for.

I picked up my Bible and read the assigned verses. It was the same text that was read at our wedding: "Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Col. 3:12-14).


Put on love. Not feel love, but choose to do it. Perhaps in the act of loving someone, we will come to feel love for them. "Lord," I prayed, "I'll need your help. I'm tired of loving on my own." Then I dialed the phone. "Honey? It's me. I, I'm sorry. I was wrong."

As I wrote the article, I realized that it's impossible to understand forgiveness without forgiving. It is impossible to understand grace and hold a grudge.

That evening things were different. Ramona and I talked long into the night. We spoke of love. Not as an emotion, not something we fall into or out of. But something we decide to do, whether we feel like it or not.

Another Anniversary

Years passed, and another anniversary rolled around. The day we celebrated 17 years together helped me realize I still have much to learn about selflessness and tenderness and holding my tongue. After checking into a nearby hotel, we enjoyed dinner and watched a mediocre movie. The next morning we awoke to a Continental breakfast courtesy of room service. Over muffins and jam, I read aloud from a Gideon Bible the familiar verses the preacher recited on our wedding day.

We talked briefly about forgiveness, and I recalled C.S. Lewis's wise words: "After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again."

Then I made my first mistake of the day: I suggested to Ramona that we go shopping. Now, 17 years of marriage have taught me some things. One is that you should not walk downstairs in the dark when your kids have been playing with small trucks. Another is that my wife and I are completely incompatible when it comes to shopping malls. Whereas I like music stores and stereo shops, Ramona prefers anything that announces, "Clothing and Housewares: 50 percent off."

By noon we found ourselves staring at acres of furniture and other household items under fluorescent lights that are designed by scientists to drive husbands berserk. We had been discussing the purchase of a painting to adorn a blank wall in our dining room, and that day as we strolled the acres I finally found the perfect picture. Framed in forest green, this depiction of a peaceful breakfast scene combined diverse influences such as Rembrandt and Norman Rockwell.

"Put me in your dining room," the picture said to me. And I promised that I would.

The picture did not speak to my wife, however. She found it distasteful and too large for the wall. She had picked out a picture of her own, the famous French breakfast scene, fleurs sur la terrace. I said something I shouldn't have when she showed it to me. Essentially, what I said was: "Whatever. You always get your way anyway!" Ramona zipped through the checkout stand ahead of me. Then she sat in the van alone, looking straight ahead.

It is impossible to understand forgiveness without forgiving. It is impossible to understand grace and hold a grudge.

As I stood gazing through the store's wide glass doors at the girl I fell in love with back in high school, I was reminded of that other anniversary—the one we shared nine years earlier. Here we were again, doing something special on our anniversary. And waging another war.

So on the way home, I said what I have said time and again: "I'm sorry. I was wrong."

"I forgive you," said Ramona, taking my hand.

Tonight, as we sit at the dinner table, I realize that I am a happy man. I am surrounded by a loving family, smiling at a forgiving wife. Not only did she decide to marry me more than 17 years ago, she has decided to keep me. And I'm even starting to enjoy the picture hanging on our dining room wall.

Phil Callaway is a popular speaker and the author of Who Put the Skunk in the Trunk? (Multnomah) and I Used to Have Answers, Now I Have Kids (Harvest House). You can visit Phil's web page at www.philcallaway.ab.ca.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Compromise; Forgiveness; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 2000
Posted September 30, 2008

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