This weekend, my husband and I are celebrating eighteen years of marriage. Knowing I was going to write this post, I have had a lot of time to think through the angle I want to take here. What do I say when reflecting on eighteen years?
Maybe I share how wonderful it is. Marriage is wonderful. It is a gift. It is a joy.
Maybe I share how hard it is. Marriage is gut-wrenching at times. It requires more than I knew I would need.
Maybe I share how it’s “worth it.” Hang in there, you’ll be glad you did.
Though all of these are true, I am choosing a different route. I want to share the hidden, difficult, ambiguous nature of the gifts marriage holds.
We are eighteen years in, and every year I discover more deeply how mysterious marriage can be. I used to read the verse referring to marriage as a mystery and not get it. Mystery? How is it a mystery? It’s two people choosing to live their life together. What’s unclear or hazy about the arrangement?
The decision to get married, to stay married, is not mysterious. You dive in, you choose to be all in, and then you keep your word. That’s pretty straightforward. The mystery comes in the moving toward a goal that you thought was crystal clear, but, with time, only becomes more mysterious. It sounds strange, I know, but as the years unfold, I find increasing comfort in the discovery that there are components of marriage that continue to become more unclear.
For years I operated under the assumption that marriage would be super fun, like a spread in the Pottery Barn catalog. All dinner parties, new dishes, and perhaps some adorable children on the side to round it all out. You might say I required a smidge of course correction.
Marriage brought with it land mines I didn’t even know to prepare for. And when the land mines exploded, I heard a very scary question somewhere deep in my heart. I tired to ignore it. I tried to quiet it. I tried to look away and pretend it didn’t exist. But there it sat, begging attention like a dripping faucet in the dead of night.
The question was simple. Why am I doing this?
When I tried to address the question with an answer that depended on someone else, either my husband, or my children, or even myself, it fell flat. Broken people cannot provide reasons enough to weather land mines, no matter how much I want them to.
I wrestled with the question, quiet and determined, knowing there must be an answer. The example and vulnerability of other couples made me believe. Why else would people stay together?
I slowly discovered the answer, and it did not come because of the merit of my life, or the life of my husband or children. My answer came in the heart of the hard, in the eye of the storm, in the desperate confusing hours. I found my answer in the mystery, wrapped in the gospel, deposited into my heart, made possible only through faith in the One who declared marriage to be a living metaphor.
My answer? There are gifts to be found in the staying. Not the kind of gifts found on a registry or in another person, or even in yourself, but found in the actual staying itself. The answer is, in fact, quite mysterious.
The mystery of marriage is only found when you stay. Not in the face of abuse or neglect or harm. (Goodness gracious, please know this is not a plea to stomach through a situation where you are not safe. Get the help you need.) But apart from the threat of harm, in the moments that aren’t highlighted in the glossy pages of the Pottery Barn catalog, the gifts of marriage are only found when we stay. The gifts are given when it would be easier, more pleasant, more self-serving, more comfortable to leave. It is in the staying that we sow seeds, the harvest of which we will one day reap. When you leave, you lose the opportunity for the return on your investment of shared time and tears.
What are these gifts? I am only beginning to know. Little seedlings of a future hearty harvest are beginning to poke their tender leaves up through the soil. They are coming into view, but not fully mature or developed. I like their delicate beauty, the way they reflect back to me hours of commitment and continuing, and I want to grow towards them, but I have not the years to say they are fully mine yet.
I hope the weight of this sinks in for you. I have been at this for eighteen years, which is longer than I’ve been at anything in my life, and I am only now discovering seedlings. The mysterious gifts are slow, hard fought, and fly in the face of instant gratification. My timeline is not necessarily your timeline, so your soil may begin to emerge with a rich return much sooner (or later), but my gut tells me work of furrowing and planting seeds begins to yield a harvest only after many years spent weathering storms and trials of every sort.
When I got married, I thought I knew what the gifts were going to be. But, with the passage of time, I discover that the things I thought I would get, achieve, earn, are replaced by a yearning toward something I didn’t even know to want. Who would have told me to look forward to a mystery? If they had, would I have listened or believed? Doubtful.
The gifts of marriage, the little seedlings I see, hold a supernatural sweetness. My husband and I share an intimate affection from weathering things together that no one else can or will ever weather with either of us. We hold a knowing of all the ridiculously ugly ways we have failed, broken, or damaged each other, and yet learned how to mend and heal and laugh again. I find comfort in our common dialect, not of words, but of glances or touches or sighs that communicate in an instant what would take hours to put into words.
This is the shadow of the mystery, beginning to emerge. It holds the answer for why I do this whole marriage thing in the first place.
I stepped into marriage thinking I was out to solve the mystery. But now, today, I find myself welcoming the mystery, craving it, and seeing in it the unseen eternal nature of what occurs when two people commit to live their lives together in the eyes of their Savior.