My Christian marriage, which lasted almost 19 years, ended last year. Our separation and the year since the divorce have given me plenty of time to sit with my part in the demise of my marriage.
I, of course, also gave plenty of thought—obsessive amounts of thought—to my husband's role in our breakup, but as I am learning and relearning, there is always more than one side to each story. In fact, I believe there are three sides to every story . . . yours, mine, and God's (otherwise known as the truth). Then within each of those three sides, there's also my perception of each, your perception of each, and again, the truth.
I come to you, baring my soul and my faults in whispers. I am ashamed of myself and the ways I behaved during that union. And yet I come to warn you. My desire is to elevate the beauty of Christian marriage in our culture. So I come bearing the knowledge that only someone whose hard marriage ended has acquired. Please listen with an open heart, not necessarily to who I am and what I did wrong, but to see if you recognize yourself in the ways I related.
I yelled. A lot.
I was cruel and self-serving and critical with my words. Probably daily.
I looked out for "number one" and tried to protect her (me).
I didn't serve my then-husband enough.
I didn't build him up enough.
I didn't let him be who he wanted to be.
I cared much more about my living in perpetual pain than I did about the pain my then-husband was living in.
I didn't respect him. Let me take a moment with this one. I used to argue that once I felt he deserved respect, I'd begin to respect him. I now believe that there are two kinds of respect. There is earned respect and there is role-expected respect. For instance, I might not respect President Such-&-Such, but if he walked into the room, you'd better believe I'd stand and probably clap just because of his role. So if nothing else, I withheld role-expected respect.
I wanted the pain to stop, but I didn't want to have to do the hard work it would take to get us to the other side. (I did end up doing the huge amounts of hard work, but not until 15 years in.)
I prayed for him and I prayed for us, but I didn't do so enough. And when I prayed, the prayers said things like help me . . . change him . . . release me.
Harder to identify
Now things take a slightly different turn. With the above list, I was aware that I was messing up all the time. The list that follows are things that I didn't know how to do any differently until it was too late. These things used to not feel like things I was doing wrong.
I had no boundaries. I was needy, so I would take any and all attention. I even stirred things up into arguments because yucky attention was better than no attention.
Things were going on that were outright sinful and wrong. I didn't always call them out. And when I did, I didn't follow through. I used to think that wasn't my job but the job of another man. I now realize that it is part of a spouse's job . . . that's what a helpmate should do. Gently, of course.
I asked for a lot of help over the years. But when I didn't get it, I stopped asking. I crawled back into my shell and tried to keep wading through. I say this even though we went to nine counselors and met with other couples and I read a bunch of marriage books. I never spoke the full truth until four months before we ended up separating. And when I did, when I laid our marriage out on the table at a local diner for another couple from church, I said what I should have said 10 years before: "I'm not saying I'm sinless. But I'm saying this is wrong, and I can't do this anymore, and I am begging you to help us." It was maybe too late.
I maintained everything. I was a control freak. I told the members of my little family how they should behave, even though one of the members of my family was a grownup. I was desperate to make sure no one really knew how broken we were because aside from my marriage, I loved my life and I was too selfish to risk it all blowing up in my face. I was the supervisor in charge of image management for our family.
I lived a really big, full life. I kept me busy. I told myself and others I was trying to live an abundant life despite my circumstances, but there's a really good chance I actually did this so I wouldn't have to look at my marriage—and maybe even more so, so I wouldn't have to look in the mirror and at my heart and at how sinful I was being and how much pain there really was and what it might take to really try to turn things around.
There's more, I'm sure. Because remember, this is just my perception of my part in it all. There is still my ex-spouse's, and more important, there's how God sees me in all of this.
So there you have it: I was a full participant in our dysfunction and our ending.
Both full responsibility & full grace
Please hear me: I am not trying to put myself down. And on the flipside, I am absolutely not justifying what went on in my marriage, because it isn't justifiable. But I am trying to look inside and be honest and real. Most of the time my heart was in the right place, and most of the time I didn't know any other way but what I was doing. Those are not excuses . . . I messed up so very much. But I was not intentionally horrible to another human being for years, although sadly I was horrible for a lot of that time. I need to own that. And I am so very sorry for that. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner . . .
But to you I must ask, Does this sound familiar? Are you this kind of spouse? Is your marriage hurting or in trouble, and do you find yourself doing all the same things over and over again? Please know that there is help available.
I would suggest a few steps:
1. Prayerfully share with someone you trust who would be able to help you. This could be a counselor, a pastor, a small group leader, or a mentor. This will take courage.
2. If you do not feel heard, believed, or understood, find another person. Keep asking for help until you receive help. This will take tenacity.
4. Be willing to look at your part in the situation and to work on yourself. Even if there is abuse or addiction involved, there is always room for self-improvement. This will take humility.
5. Stay close to Jesus. Changing how you live out your marriage and how you respond to someone's poor choices or hurtful words will require you to be walking in holiness to the best of your ability. This will take grace.
Trust me when I say there is hope. And there is healing. And for you, it's not too late.
Elisabeth Klein is the author of Unraveling: Hanging Onto Faith Through the End of a Christian Marriage and a former women's ministry leader. She focuses her attention on women who are in hurting marriages or who find themselves divorcing. She lives with her children in Illinois. Visit her website or find her on Facebook.