When I was a newlywed, my mentor gave me this advice: Never speak negatively about your husband or marriage. This seemed simple enough. Anyway, what negative thing could I possibly say about my darling soul mate or my blissful union?
In the years since, there have been times when I've been grateful for that advice—as I bit my lips to keep from joining in laughter-filled husband-bashing sessions. But there have also been times when I've been confused. Lost. Isolated.
What about when I'm hurting? When it's a struggle to live side by side, day after day, with this wonderful person who is sometimes as mysterious to me as a stranger at the mall? or more infuriating than the guy who cut me off on the freeway? What about when we're having the same argument again—the one we know so well, we could switch sides and say one another's lines for a change of pace?
That's when I'm convinced that Pete and I are a special case—our marriage was put together wrong to begin with, we chose each other hastily, we've ventured so far off the path, there's no getting back. No way to heal. And I bite my lips in frustration, wanting so much to tell someone, to test the waters and find out if I'm crazy.
My hesitancy to speak is not based solely on my mentor's advice. There's a hefty dose of pride mixed in. We're Christians, I reason. We shouldn't have these struggles. We know marriage was ordained and sanctioned by God, and it models the love between Christ and the church. When I look around at Bible study, I see smiling couples ("shiny, happy people, holding hands …"). Those smiles would slide right off if I revealed my own ickiness and the difficulties in my marriage. Surely I'd be treated like a pariah forevermore.
I exaggerate a bit. But not much. A few years ago, I tried to share a chronic frustration I had with my husband—it was bigger than a toilet seat but smaller than adultery. When my listening friend started to laugh, I was bewildered—until she playfully shoved my shoulder and said, "That shouldn't bother you! That's crazy!" She walked away shaking her head, and I felt awkward with her every time I saw her after that. She clearly viewed me as ridiculous. Pathetic. Whiny.
So I went back to my old way of doing things, plastering on a smile in public and desperately trying to "fix" things in private. I was convinced it was the way things had to be.
A few years ago, I began to see things differently. Like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, the realities of my friends' marriages were suddenly, shockingly revealed.
By the time my mentor told me her husband had filed for divorce, her marriage had been crumbling for nearly a year (and they'd been struggling for more than a decade). The only clue I'd had was when she had quietly asked me to pray for her marriage—refusing to share any details, wanting to honor her husband's privacy.
The choice to divorce was solely her husband's—he refused to consider any other path. But still, I ache with regret. I wonder how things might have been different had this couple allowed others to see their pain, to share their burdens, to speak truth into their confusion. In talking with her now, we've both realized there's a distinct difference between speaking negatively (griping and bashing)—which damages marriages, husbands, and wives—and confiding in a trusted friend. It's a delicate balance, but it's one we need to find.
I have five more stories right here in my pocket that I could share, just from these past four years. All of them follow roughly the same pattern: even the closest loved ones knew little to nothing of the couples' struggles until the divorce was either in progress or final. Two of those stories involve pastors. I'm reminded of the "whitewashed tombs" from Scripture (Matthew 23:27). In this case, the bones and rotting flesh are the hearts and marriages of our precious friends.
So as good Christian boys and girls—who ought not to spread gossip and inflame our own anger by sharing stories and being validated with "I can't believe (s)he did that!"—how do we stop cancers from growing unchecked in our marriages? What's the balance? Where's the line?
It's hard to open up about the struggles of marriage. This article has been extremely difficult to write. I keep walking away from the computer, worried that I really am a special case—readers will shake their heads at me and cluck their tongues.
But even if there are only a few of us out there, it's worthwhile to pull back the curtain. It seems that all this tiptoeing, being careful not to air our marriages' dirty laundry, leads us to a place of isolation, which leads to despair. And despair is a hair's breadth away from surrender. Perhaps if we stop feeling like mutants because we can't maintain marital bliss for more than a few days at a time, we'll find strength to keep trying. To push through pain and frustration so we can build something that blesses our spouses, our children, ourselves—and glorifies our Father in heaven.
What to Do and How to Do It
Brace yourself, because I'm about to change your life in five easy steps.
Not really. None of the things we need to do to alter the course of our marriages and the dynamics of our friendships is easy. Along the way, we have to check our fears, pray without ceasing, and stand firm on the conviction that marriage—God's design—is worth the discomfort, inconvenience, and risk involved in doing things his way.
First, talk to your spouse. You each need a same-sex friend to share your hearts with so any sparks of discontent have a chance of being extinguished before they catch. This could be tricky. If your spouse does not agree but wants to keep things private, you'll need a Plan B. In this case, seek the help of a professional. If your spouse will not come along, go alone.
Dear friends of mine who've been together for over 30 years were at divorce's door 20 years ago. The papers were signed—by him, but not by her. She tucked them away and went to a pastor for counseling. Things didn't change overnight, but over time her husband became intrigued by how his wife had changed, primarily in the way she related to him. He wanted to know why and how. He went to the pastor himself to find out. Two decades (and three more children) later, they are one of the most joyful, loving couples I know. (Hey, Disney—that's a happy ending.)
Next, find a friend who will listen. They're in the "necessities of life" section at Wal-Mart, between the dark chocolate and the comfortable slippers. Okay, no. This is going to take a lot of prayer and a lot of looking. Spend some time thinking about how you feel with each of your friends—are you tense, feeling as if you need to measure up? Or do you have a friend who doesn't care if you have to shove your laundry over so she can sit on your sofa for a quick cup of tea? who won't ridicule you if he sees you cry?
The friend that you feel the most genuine with is a good place to start. And pray. I know, I said it before, but it's important enough to repeat. Ask God to bring a person to mind. When I did this recently, the woman he kept leading me toward was someone I hardly knew—we'd never spent any time alone together. But when I asked her about meeting together, she was thrilled. Turns out he'd been whispering my name in her ear, too.
Now remember: you're not looking for a friend who will hear you, but one who will listen. You don't need an "amen" when you're being hypocritical and hypercritical. And you don't need active stonewalling or a deer-in-the-headlights look either, as if you're violating some natural law by bringing up problems.
Be sure to offer the same to your friend, with this in mind: You do not help your friend when you allow him to rage about his wife for the heck of it. You're even less help when you fuel her anger by behaving as if she's a bona fide hero for not setting fire to the dirty socks he left in the hallway. My best friend in the world (that same mentor I've mentioned twice now) once stopped me mid-gripe, leaned in, and said, "You're being a jerk, you know." And then she leaned in farther, folding me in her arms. (See why she's my best friend in the world?)
On the other hand, you do not help your friend when you allow him or her to say things are "fine" when you can see they aren't. To turn a blind eye, even if it seems unlikely that anything is seriously wrong—that's like leaving your friend tied to train tracks just because you don't hear a whistle.
We have to acknowledge that our marriages are fragile, though we've let ourselves believe that being a Christian means being flawless. We have to acknowledge that private pain is not in God's will for us as his children, as his church. The purpose of sharing our hearts with our fellow Christians is abundantly clear in Galatians 6:2: "Share each other's burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ." As long as we're hiding the truth or acting in judgment rather than love, we're ignoring Ephesians 4:15: "We will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church."
See, it's not just about you and your marriage. It's about following God's design for Christians and for the church—which glorifies him in this fallen, broken world.
I encourage you to find someone—not just anyone—to invite into your heart of hearts (note: geography does not need to be an issue. There are these contraptions called telephones, not to mention Skype and email and even handwritten letters). Ask God to point you toward a man or woman who views marriage as sacred, not fodder for sitcom material; a person who loves you, but loves God more and won't hesitate to call you on it if you're straying from his best in your speech, your actions, your attitudes; someone who will hurt with you and honor you by keeping your confidences—and follow up with you to see how things have, or have not, changed.
And please—do the same for your friend.
Mandy Houk is a writing teacher at a Colorado private school, as well as a freelance writer, editor, speaker, and pre-published novelist. She lives a semi-rural life in the forest with her husband, Pete, two delightful teenage daughters, and more pets than she can personally handle.