His hands shook and his voice cracked, and for the first time ever, this bearded, worship-leading Wisconsinite had a hard time singing the words he had written for me. I knew something was up. When he finally knelt down and pulled out his mother’s diamond, I had begun to match his shakiness with my own. In a matter of seconds, my life took a shift for which I was not prepared.
We excitedly called all of our friends and family, complete with squeals and happy tears. The night was young, and I had already become firmly aware of the pain in my cheeks from the immovable smile. We drove to our pastor’s house where my new fiancé had lots of people waiting to surprise me with an engagement party. As we walked in the door, I immediately realized none of my family or friends were present. It makes sense now that I’m outside of the moment—we were in Indianapolis, not in Georgia where my family lived—but in that instant, I had my first taste of newlywed grief.
Hiding the Real Issue
We don’t often talk about the sense of loss that can occur with this massive life change called marriage, but it is a feeling that plagued my heart for quite some time. Marriage brings a whole lot of new, but there’s also some sacrifice that takes place. As I began to pack up my life, leaving my job and my friends for a man in Indianapolis, I cloaked myself in a martyr mentality, determined to portray Christ’s love through this marriage from the very beginning and sacrifice my life. All you need is love, right? So, we said our “I dos,” and I moved to Indiana with a new name, a new bank account, and a new roommate.
My martyr mentality was really just a mask to hide the real issue of pain, and it prolonged the grieving process that needed to happen in my heart. I resisted dealing with this sense of loss because I assumed that newlyweds were supposed to be happy and full of all things good and right. All of my other newlywed friends seemed to be happy, and I didn’t want my new husband to think he wasn’t enough for me.
Unfortunately, suppressing pain does the opposite of what we normally hope it will. It bubbles up at all the wrong times without our permission. My grief came out of nowhere and hit me smack in the face. It started with my new last name. My maiden name had been such a sense of pride for me, being a daddy’s girl and all. I associated that name with a legacy of perseverance, overcoming odds, and loving people ferociously. I felt that giving up my name meant giving up that part of my identity. I felt like I was no longer part of my own family.
Being Rooted in Christ
Next came the grief of losing my independence. As a woman who has prided herself on making good money, keeping a strict budget, and providing for her own needs, the idea of sharing resources with a man leveled me in all kinds of uncomfortable ways. You mean he gets to touch my money?! Yeah, that was a terrifying realization. Once again, I began to feel as though I was losing part of my identity.
The peak of my grief came during our first December as a married couple, just five short months after our wedding. The sadness coupled with friends and family who lived so far away made me obsessively bitter. One of my closest friends, Leisel, was living in Florida at the time, so I called her to complain and compare notes since she had been married longer. I missed her tremendously and wanted her to make me feel justified in my bitterness. Instead, in typical Leisel fashion, she acted as the arrow I needed to point me back to God.
She listened to my heart and then said, “You know how in Matthew 1, where Jesus’ genealogy is recorded, there are women on that list who culturally shouldn’t have been listed?”
“Yes,” I said cautiously.
“Those women could have lost their significance. Their identities didn’t really matter back then because they were women, but their names are still present in . Marge, they didn’t lose their identities. Their stories gained even greater significance because of Jesus. It’s all about Jesus. It always has been and it always will be.”
Leisel said it without actually saying it: fulfillment in my identity will only come when it’s rooted in Christ. This doesn’t mean that I forget all of the other nuances about myself. It means that my quirks and family history are viewed through a new lens—the lens of redemption through the person and work of Jesus.
Extending My Identity
In Ephesians 3:17–19, Paul touches on identity, and as he prays for the church in Ephesus to be strengthened by the Spirit, he says,
Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.
My marriage to that bearded, worship-leading Wisconsinite may have been the catalyst for a lot of change in my life, but it does not have the power to uproot me from the love of God. Jesus made his home in my heart the moment I decided to trust him, and that union is irrevocable.
I wish I could say I immediately ceased to struggle with the grief, but healing is a process, not an obstacle to jump over. We’re only about two and half years into this marriage thing, and there are still days I wake up with the ache. But as I read through Ephesians 3:17–19—particularly about how wide, long, high, and deep God’s love is—I find myself more and more convinced that my decision to enter into this marriage union is not a replacement of my identity—it’s an extension of it.
In extending my identity to encompass a whole other person, I have the real-life privilege of living out the metaphor that points to Christ and the church (). Jesus opens the doors wide for us to live in freedom and fullness. As the last couple years have passed, I have been convinced through experience that my husband often does the same. He doesn’t want to suffocate my personality or rid me of any relational ties with my family. No, he wants to create space that allows me to operate as the woman God created me to be. I don’t know that I would have had the ability to appreciate this aspect of my husband’s character without first experiencing the grief. I am humbled; God was faithful to redeem my grief. How wide, long, high, and deep is the love of God.
Maggie Johnson is a writer, wife, and social justice junkie. She lives in Indianapolis with her bearded husband where she serves as the women’s ministry coordinator at her church. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter.