JUDY AND I celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary this past summer. But it has only been a couple of years since I really saw how our marriage worked and what its inner dynamics were like — in fact, for the first decade, I lived with some deep misconceptions.
From the outside, Judy’s family life appeared dysfunctional and distant whereas mine looked nurturing and close. Because of this, I saw how needy she was and how I would take care of her. By marrying me, Judy would get to enjoy all the love that my family shares. I didn’t mind the lopsidedness, because it would be my joy and pleasure to serve the person who I loved. This was my interpretation of Ephesians 5, that I would love and give myself up for her as Christ loved the church, which all sounded good, true, and pure. Of course, I was also very naïve.
In psychologist Harville Hendrix’s ideas of “imago relationship therapy”, people find spouses that resemble significant persons of their childhood whom they need to somehow reconcile with. Conventional wisdom would say that people find partners like their mothers or fathers, but Hendrix highlighted that we also find partners with issues or problems complementary to our own.
So, while Judy’s family seemed somewhat fragmented in a fend-for-yourself kind of way, mine was fused together, desperately compensating for a father who’d been abusive most of our lives. Throughout our marriage, Judy was sorting out her past upbringing and I was doing the same thing. Thinking about it now, I appreciate many aspects of her more independent family values. In her family, all the members were expected to be responsible for their own happiness instead of depending on others to make them happy. While my family showed a lot of support for each other, we had high expectations as well. Learning from her family moved me toward a more balanced view of my familial bonds.
My misunderstandings extended beyond thoughts about our family background. When my wife and I began dating, there were a number of factors that steered me toward a dominant role in the relationship. I was three years her senior and had previously served as her campus ministry staff leader when she was a student leader.
Even as our roles equalized over the years, there continued to be a lingering thought that I brought more into this marriage than she did. From my perspective, I encouraged my wife to read more, go to seminary with me, be a more assertive person, etc. Sure, she helped me to enjoy life, relax, and play, but I didn’t think that these things were really substantive to life. This was one of my bigger misconceptions.
Theologian Martin Luther said that “good works” can be the most dangerous sin because through them we can delude ourselves into thinking that we need God less. Moreover, good works become the means by which we fall into more sophisticated sins, like spiritual pride and arrogant moralism. The good has a shadow side, and if we don’t stay humble and acknowledge it as a gift, it will deceive and delude.
The good has a shadow side, and if we don’t stay humble and acknowledge it as a gift, it will deceive and delude.
By analogy, our positive character traits also have shadows. The problem is that these positive traits are generally more socially acceptable and often affirmed by others, thus increasing their powers of deception and hiddenness. For example, I am very organized, analytical, and detailed-oriented. These are usually good traits that people around me affirm and benefit from. However, these traits can also cause me to turn on others and start taking them apart, pointing out their problems and weakness.
After years together, our spouses see past the surface to our deeper brokenness. But I’m not sure if we are always aware of own brokenness, especially if it has a nice appearance, is socially approved, or attractive. I definitely didn’t see it in myself.
I was about a decade into our marriage before I began to see that my so-called “contributions” had shadow sides to them. As much as I encouraged and guided my wife, I was also domineering and generally overfunctioning — taking up too much space in our marriage. My ability to analyze and note small details also had a tendency toward being overly critical of not only myself, but my wife as well. Thinking about all this, I began to wonder, “How did she put up with me all these years?” I’m sure that my sense of superiority and condescending attitude, even though not flagrant, still showed through.
Many couples are attracted to their spouses because they seem so refreshingly different from them. As I have mentioned, Judy and I are polar opposites in so many ways. Early on in the relationship, these differences were endearing, but as the marriage progressed, they lost their appeal and even became annoying.
I confess that after a couple of years of our marriage, I no longer found Judy’s carefree, laid-back personality cute; I even found it bothersome. But I have come to realize that I need her specifically for that trait. My driven, ambitious, put together, type A personality is productive, responsible, and accomplished. However, it also leaves me physically and emotionally worn-out, and my body crashes a few times a year from overwork and stress.
Judy has taught me to take myself less seriously and to consider rest and relaxation a necessity. Vacations are not luxuries, she likes to say. And after all these years, I finally concur. Of course, this is only one of many things that my wife brings to the marriage. She also has an uncanny way of understanding how children see the world and is able to listen to others with a great deal of empathy. These are some of the traits that I generally struggle with or miss altogether in my drive for perfection.
Through my marriage, I have learned that if I surrender to the wisdom of humility, I might just experience the transforming grace I need. The key to this is humility. Although we Christians like to talk about humility, we rarely possess it in real life.
Through my marriage, I have learned that if I surrender to the wisdom of humility, I might just experience the transforming grace I need.
I would love to say that since I have realized all this, I always appreciate all aspects of my wife’s personality, quirks included. Even though this is not the case, I am no longer blind to the truth of who I am and what I am like. Simply knowing this has made all the difference. Broadly speaking, I’m more grateful for all the ways that she teaches me about myself, our marriage, and life in general. Previously, the way she approached problems and issues would often become an occasion for conflict. Now, it challenges me to think differently and consider other possibilities. Knowing that there is a shadow side of any good thing keeps me grounded with a healthier view of myself.
It’s surprising how much a marriage changes and keeps on changing over time. After 14 years, my appreciation for Judy has grown in ways that I didn’t expect. Indeed, it is a profound mystery of how God uses marriage in our lives.