The first time I heard the phrase "happy wife, happy life," I thought the man was kidding.
When a friend said, "My husband just wants me to be happy," I exclaimed, "He does?"
When the husband looks at the wife on House Hunters and asks, "Which house do you want to buy?" I say out loud to no one, "Who says that?"
When a friend said, in passing, "I just feel cherished," I almost had to sit down and breathe into a paper bag.
Foreign concepts to the heart of a woman in a marriage that was frail and disappearing.
I told my friend, "My husband told me that if I want a new cell phone, I have to promise to wear it at all times, even when I go sit outside. I have to explain my Target purchases . . . like Q-Tips. And one time I stood in front of the thermostat, after having the air conditioning on all day, praying and willing it to go to a higher temperature so I wouldn't be 'found out.' And he told me my behavior would make sense if I were bipolar."
"Honey," she said, "those things aren't normal." Oh.
Every marriage is hard. Hard is normal. But not every marriage is bad. Bad is not normal. There is a world of difference between the two. When you're in it, it can be very tricky to know which is which.
Even after going to counselor after counselor, participating in one small group after another, and reading myriad books on marriage, I didn't know what was normal and what was not, what was hard and what was bad. One minute I thought things were really not right between us, and the next moment I had convinced myself that my expectations were too high, that I just needed to be a better wife.
If you find yourself in that murky place, not knowing if you're in a normal, hard marriage or a not-normal marriage, read through this list and ask God to shed light into the murkiness.
If you and your spouse argue about money and sex and not getting enough time together and who was supposed to pick up the dry-cleaning, your marriage is hard but normal. If you and your spouse argue about, well, everything, most of the time, your marriage might not be normal.
If you and your spouse sometimes go a day without talking, your marriage is normal. If you and your spouse go a week without talking, your marriage might not be normal.
If you and your spouse jokingly call each other goof or crazy, your marriage is normal. If you and your spouse use phrases like lying moron or full of bulls---, your marriage is not.
If you and your spouse nag each other about picking up the clothes on the floor or backing the car in the garage the right way, your marriage is normal. If you or your spouse secretly unplugs the dishwasher because you think your spouse doesn't use it properly and therefore shouldn't be allowed to use it, your marriage is not.
If you and your spouse spend money on something they're not sure their spouse would agree with and then confess and say you're sorry, your marriage is normal. If you or your spouse takes all of the money out of the joint checking account and cancels the credit card without telling the other, your marriage is not.
If you and your spouse are in a couples' group where one of you accidentally shares something a bit too private, and then you talk it through later, your marriage is normal. If you or your spouse says that the other is not allowed to talk to anyone about your marriage, your marriage is not.
If you and your spouse have secrets like who your first kiss really was, your marriage is normal. If you or your spouse have secrets like who your last kiss really was, your marriage is not.
If you or your spouse bounces a check but then lets the other one know right away, your marriage is normal. If you or your spouse lies to you about where he or she was last night, your marriage is not.
I woke up one day to truth. My eyes were opened and I realized that I was not living in a normal marriage, that I needed extraordinary measures of help. And I asked for help until I felt truly heard and understood.
If your marriage is hard, then it is normal. You're in the trenches. It's worth it, and keep going. Love freely. Take care of each other. Carve time out for each other. Pray for each other. Respect each other. Be kind to one another. Thank God for each other.
But if your marriage is bad, then it is not normal. You need help. You need a pastor, a counselor, or a mentor couple. You need a third party to help you see what is healthy and salvageable and what is no longer good and pure and holy. Continue to love to the best of your ability. Continue to pray. Do not just walk away. But please seek assistance and support to give God room and space to do what he needs to do. You may be surprised by the outcome, but God won't be.
Elisabeth Klein is mom to Sara and Jack. She is the author of several books, including Unraveling: Hanging onto Faith at the End of a Christian Marriage and At the Corner of Broken & Love: Where God Meets Us in the Everyday (Westbow).