The war started long before Mary Beth and I met.
I grew up in a home buzzing with open, honest, spill-your-guts conversations. And when there was an argument, we talked it out—even yelled it out—till, by golly, we reached a resolution no matter how long it took.
They did things a little differently in Mary Beth's family. They seldom talked about much more than the superficial, and arguments were rarely resolved. Instead, they swept conflicts under the rug, woke up the next day, and pretended nothing ever happened.
So it's no surprise that when we got married, we had decidedly different ideas about how to approach a spat.
I remember one heated discussion early in our marriage. I don't remember what we were arguing about, but I told Mary Beth, "Scripture says we can't let the sun go down on our anger." I took that verse literally. I was determined to resolve it before the sun went down.
Mary Beth apparently felt differently. She just sat there on the bed looking at me while I kept yapping away. I said, "We can't let the sun go down on our anger!" And she said, "Yes, we can. Just watch."
Then she fell asleep, just when I was making my final point. I was enraged!
I'm ashamed to say this, but our first apartment ended up with a perfectly round, fist-sized hole in the drywall of our bedroom. Later, Mary Beth told me she was praying I'd hit a stud.
It wasn't the last time Mary Beth fell asleep during one of my soliloquies. She says it's a coping mechanism. All I know is that it drives me crazy.
Well, I can drive her crazy too. That's all part of the war.
Into the fire
Don't get me wrong. We don't fight all the time. We have plenty of fun, and the big picture of our marriage is a happy one. But it's not without its battles.
It seems as if Mary Beth and I were destined to deal with stress and struggles right from the start.
We were really young—I was 21, she was 19—and immature when we got married. We certainly weren't ready for the challenges we'd face, especially early in our marriage.
We had only been married six months when Mary Beth got pregnant. That certainly wasn't in our five-year plan.
Then we had another surprise, just five weeks after Emily—the oldest of our five kids—was born. Our apartment burned down, and we lost all our possessions. Money was tight, insurance was nil, and tensions were high.
Mary Beth, who was still a "daddy's girl" at that time, called her father in tears, begging for help. Her mom and dad came as quickly as they could.
But I told my parents not to come. I said, "We've got all the help we need, and you'd just be in the way."
My mom was in town a few days later visiting my brother, and she dropped by just to check on us. Mary Beth's parents were still there, and stress levels were soaring.
Mary Beth was still sorting out the raw emotions of being a brand-new mom. We were both grieving the loss of our apartment and our stuff. Mary Beth's parents were doing everything they could to help us, and they couldn't understand why my parents hadn't been there all along to help too—even though I'd told my parents we were okay.
Then all those emotions blew up into a huge argument. I'm not sure what all was said. But the picture I remember was my wife standing on one side of the room with her parents, and they said, "Well, we may just take our daughter back to Ohio." My mom was on the other side, crying and saying, "Then we'll just take our son back to Kentucky."
For me, it was a moment of truth. I could see that an enemy was trying to destroy our marriage. My in-laws weren't the enemy, and my parents weren't the enemy. Then I did something that freaked out everybody, including myself. I screamed at the top of my lungs, "Satan will not have this family!"
Everybody just got really quiet and stared at me like I was some kind of weirdo. But it was something I had to do.
Mary Beth and I have talked about that day many times. She agrees that Satan was trying to wreck our marriage.
That intense scene helped us define our role as a couple, as an entity separate from our families. Mary Beth was still a daddy's girl, and I was wondering when I'd get to take over the role of being the man in her life.
I got my answer that day. After all those emotions were exposed, I sat down with Mary Beth, my in-laws, and my mom. I also called my dad so he could be part of the conversation. I said, "Dad, something important happened today, and you need to understand I'm really leaving you and Mom and I'm cleaving to my wife. Mary Beth has to know where my loyalties lie, and I hope she does the same thing."
She did. And still does.
That battle won, we then turned to finding a new home and building our lives together. But the war wasn't over. Still isn't.
Not without a fight
I've come to realize that marriage isn't the neat and tidy, happily-ever-after business of fairy tales. Unfortunately, Cinderella and the Prince didn't go on to write about how they dealt with realizing they were two very different people with quirks and warts. We never find out how they dealt with in-laws, diaper duty, challenges with careers and callings, different seasons of life and the devastating changes they can bring, past wounds and scars, and the list goes on and on.
I have to challenge the whole "happily-ever-after" idea. The greatest joys in our marriage have not come without a fight. In fact, there's not much in our marriage that hasn't come without a fight.
And yet I'm the first to say I'm happily married. Mary Beth and I still feel giddy about each other, and our love grows daily. But we fight. And yes, sometimes our marriage is war.
But we shouldn't be surprised. From the first pages of Scripture, w e find that God put us in relationship—first with himself, and then between man and woman. Then the great enemy of relationships moves in, and the war begins. What Mary Beth and I now understand is that there really is an enemy who is out to destroy marriages and families, and he'll stop at nothing.
But we recognize that enemy. And we will not let him win.
When we got married, Mary Beth and I made an agreement: Divorce is not an option. And we're sticking to that agreement, no matter what.
Sometimes it's hard, especially for Mary Beth. She's often home, holding down the fort with five kids, while I'm traveling. That brings all kinds of challenges into our family. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, we've said, "You know what? It would be a whole lot easier just to chuck the whole thing."
We never used the word "divorce," but we did say things like "maybe we should just chuck it." But we won't chuck it. Never.
Mary Beth says she's "1,000 percent" sure that people will never read in the headlines that we're getting a divorce.
And I agree with her. But I'm not naïve, either. Even though we say divorce isn't an option, we know it's not outside the realm of possibility.
I found that out the hard way. My parents had the greatest marriage in the world. It was definitely one of those till-death-do-us-part relationships. They always said divorce wasn't an option.
But apparently it was. After 28 years, the unthinkable happened: Mom and Dad divorced. I couldn't believe it.
Mary Beth and I hadn't been married long when my parents split up. And right away, we decided to take whatever precautions we could to keep the same thing from happening to us. We figured, if it can happen to them, it can happen to anybody.
We surrounded ourselves with good friends to hold us accountable, people who aren't afraid to ask us the tough questions about how things are going. And we realized we needed counseling. We've continued to get counseling all along. We laughingly say now that we probably know most of the good Christian counselors in Nashville, and we've worn them all out.
But that's a good thing. Counseling keeps our marriage strong. We don't do it because our marriage is in trouble. Mary Beth calls it our "preventive maintenance plan." After 19 years together, we're happy to say, it's still working.
A couple of characters
There's one other thing we've noticed about the ongoing "war" of marriage: It's God's way of revealing character.
When we got married, I was clueless. I had this fairy tale image of a wife with angelic wings who was always polishing her halo, getting more lovely every day. But I soon found out that the only person I was really good at loving was myself. All of a sudden I had all these opportunities to actually live out the truths of Scripture—dying to self, taking up the cross, living for another person. And that's so much harder than either Mary Beth or I ever imagined.
But that's what makes it so rewarding. We're both seeing the person God intended each of us to be, slowly coming to the surface. No one else in the world could have ever found all those buttons to push in me, revealing what God really sees when he looks at my heart. But I also realize there's no other person who could bring to the surface what I've become as a husband and father, as one who loves his family, who loves others, who loves Christ. And prayerfully, I'm bringing those things to the surface in her too.
Mary Beth says our marriage is a journey of "struggling redemptively" as our relationship grows. I like the way she puts it.
We certainly have our differences, but we love each other dearly, and God teaches us through our struggles. We've still got lots more to learn, but seeing how far we've come is a source of joy that goes deeper than words can express.
To reach over and hold Mary Beth's hand as we drive along, without saying a word, knowing the flames and the floods we've walked through together, is a happiness that Cinderella and the Prince will never know.
Yes, marriage is sometimes war. But Mary Beth and I wouldn't trade ours for anything in the world.
Steven Curtis Chapman, a Christian singer/ songwriter and winner of multiple Dove and Grammy awards, lives in Tennessee with Mary Beth and their five children (two adopted). Learn more at www.stevencurtischapman.com.
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