A week ago my wife had a simple surgical procedure done. As we were getting ready to leave the hospital, and while she was still under the fog of general anesthesia, Sarah’s nurse asked her how long we have been married.
“It will be five years next week.” Sarah said (with a bit of a slur, and a smile).
“Wow! That’s great. So…what’s the secret?”
“Yeah, the secret to a happy marriage.”
I didn’t know if this was some kind of test to see if Sarah was able to think clearly before she left. I though that maybe this nurse gets very truthful answers right after people come out of anesthesia and this is a question she likes to ask. I remained silent, because I too was curious as to what Sarah’s response would be. She looked like this was the most important question she had ever been asked. She wrinkled her forehead, lost in thought, and stared out towards my general direction.
She looked at me for a while, still lost in thought, thinking through the catalog of the last five years of our marriage. I too, then thought through these last five years: the laughs, the dates, the arguments, the compromises, the transitions, the times of plenty, the times of scarcity, the times of fear, the times of peace, the times of immense joy, the times of miserable exhaustion, the happy looks, the tears of sadness, the times of just the two of us, then the three, and then the four. I thought about how we’ve grown from being two silly teenagers in love eleven years ago, to the love we have for each other now. Is that really the same kind of love? Is it fair to call it the same thing?
“Vulnerability.” she finally replied.
The nurse had a surprised, yet satisfied look on her face.
“Oh…hmm…that’s interesting. I’ve never heard that one before. But I like it.”
I’d have to agree. Learning to be vulnerable with each other has created such a place of trust, security, empathy, and deep love for one another that it has strengthened our marriage in ways that I do not believe any other “secret” really could.
Of course we’re still working on it nearly every day. And we fail
some a lot of the time. It seems you have to wake up every morning and remind yourself that you need to be empathetic, kind, and vulnerable. These things don’t usually just come easily. Through trial and error and through daily reminders, we try not to be people who attempt to be kind or compassionate, but rather attempt to become kind people, compassionate people, vulnerable people. (There’s a difference – be the type of person who is kind, not a person who says or does kind things).
We’ve learned that it’s tremendously worse to bottle something up or to keep it under the surface. It becomes the fuel for aggression, anger, bitterness, general grumpiness, and leads to disconnection. Donald Miller posted this on Twitter the other day, and I thought it was on point:
Going silent on somebody is worse than shouting insults. When we avoid resolving conflict, we avoid personal growth.
— Donald Miller (@donaldmiller) June 2, 2015
Recently I’ve been reading an incredibly helpful book by Dr. Brene Brown entitled Daring Greatly. She puts words to so many things that I’ve felt as I’ve grown as a person, a husband, and a father. Brene Brown is famous for a couple of her TED talks about vulnerability and shame. She’s a shame researcher and has really captured some amazing truths about shame, vulnerability, and what it looks like to be a “wholehearted person.” (It’s quite the empowering book, by the way, and I can’t recommend it highly enough).
In the book she briefly mentions her own marriage, one that she’s been in for 18 years. This is what she says is the key in her own relationship:
If you asked us today what we believe is the key to our relationship, the answer would be vulnerability, love, humor, respect, shame-free fighting, and blame-free living.
— Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 105
Looking back on these last five years of marriage with Sarah, I’d have to agree completely with Brene. Something that really stood out for me in her list was “shame-free fighting” and “blame-free living.”
Those are the things which are the hardest for me. Fighting? Yeah that can come pretty easily. It’s not hard to get upset over simple things when you live with another human being (and another two young, rambunctious ones for that matter). But I think it’s great that she says fighting is key to the success and health of her marriage. But it’s not simply fighting. It’s shame-free fighting. Now that’s hard. We are conditioned in this world to constantly feel shame and to shame one another – it comes so easily, especially when you know the person you’re fighting with so well. You know their weaknesses and they know yours. You know their struggles and they know yours. But shaming one another never accomplishes anything productive. Learning to have arguments and fights without shaming is a challenge, but necessary for growth.
Blame-free living is also incredibly hard. Shifting blame, pointing fingers, and getting defensive is super easy to do and is my basic default. I rarely want to take ownership if something fails or goes wrong. But I’ve begun to learn that is not helpful in any relationship, and especially within a marriage.
Blame-free living demands empathy and it demands humility. If Sarah did something which I typically would want to point my finger at her for, I have learned that pointing that finger or blaming her for whatever has happened doesn’t really strengthen our marriage. It strains it. It pushes us away from each other. It discourages partnership, empathy, and intimacy. And it encourages shame, guilt, and disconnection.
If I did something which caused a problem or messy situation or hurt feelings, I typically in the past have wanted to blame shift. I have wanted to blame the circumstances, or other people, or whatever it may be. The fault lies in anything but myself.
But obviously that’s not usually the case. I have been learning to own up to the mistakes and failures that I make throughout a day as a husband, father, friend, or even human being. I’ve had to learn what it looks like to be humble and own up to the times which have caused disconnection, shame, or guilt. And that’s really hard to do. And I’m only starting to understand what that looks like on a consistent basis.
Recently, Sarah and I were in a fight and I was being miserable to deal with. I was disengaging, distancing myself from Sarah – not wanting to address the issue at hand. I was angry at her for ignoring a request that I had made earlier in the day and then later for hurting my feelings by how she was responding to me. At first she didn’t understand where my anger or hurt feelings were coming from. It seemed to come out of nowhere for her. At the time, I thought this was ridiculous and that she should have picked up on it way sooner than she did, hence my hurt feelings and distancing. But she was patient. She stuck by me and told me she wanted to hear what was making me so upset, and why I felt the way I did.
I originally didn’t want to talk to her about how I was feeling. I was angry. I was upset. But her empathy broke down my defense and disengagement and gave me the space to say how I really felt. Her vulnerability encouraged me to be open and honest and vulnerable about how I was feeling.
[Side note: We learned long ago not to say statements like,
“You made me feel ______.”
We are responsible for our own reactions and emotions. Other people don’t make us feel anything. Instead it is much better to say,
“I feel _____ when you _____.”
Saying things like that may sound elementary or even silly, but it doesn’t put the responsibility of how I feel on the other person, and it allows for me to take the responsibility for how I’m feeling. And it still lets her see how my feelings correspond to what has been said or done (also leaving room for empathy). This is a part of blame-free living, too.]
Anyway, I spoke my mind. I told her my frustrations and why I was angry and why I felt hurt. After she listened to everything I had to say (she didn’t interrupt or get defensive) she told me that she was sorry. She didn’t shame me for how I was feeling. She didn’t try to pass the blame. She humbled herself and owned what she believed was wrong of her to do or say towards me.
And that meant A LOT to me.
She asked me if I would forgive her, which is such a vulnerable thing to ask. What if I said no?
But I said yes.
And then she asked if I was still angry with her.
And I thought about it. And no, I wasn’t angry anymore. It kind of surprised me. I had been very angry just five minutes beforehand. But I no longer was angry. And it’s because she was honest, allowed herself to argue with me, but not shame me or blame me, or get defensive.
She told me she’d let me be alone as long as I needed, so that I could continue to cool down and recalibrate. (Another kind and thoughtful thing for her to do). And she left me alone.
But it only took me a few moments to really feel at peace again. And when I walked back downstairs to be with her I felt completely reconciled. No baggage. No anger, resentment, or bitterness.
But having a fight like that has taken five years of having fights not like that
I recently heard a man speak to a group of leaders at my church. During the question and answer time of the evening he was asked about his marriage and what he has learned throughout the years. His response was interesting.
“We’ve learned to not be naive enough to think we’ll get tot the place where we won’t hurt each other. We will. But we have learned to repent quicker.”
We’re still learning what it looks like for two imperfect people to live in the same space while trying to raise (and keep alive) two small imperfect people. We’ve grown a lot in five years of marriage, and mostly through trial and error.
Going through life with someone I’ve known and loved for over eleven years now has been a lot of fun. It’s incredible to look back, but exhilarating to look ahead.
Happy fifth Anniversary, Sarah. I love you.