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My difficult marriage

Posted February 23, 2018

One woman discovered that true love is not found at the end of a rom-com. True love begins where the rom-com ends. This is her honest account of doing it tough behind the closed doors of marriage …
I was once watching a rom-com that said you know a romance is over when your partner stops taking you to the airport. We have been married 10 years. Last week I had to travel for work, so my husband Josh dropped me off at the airport. I surprised myself by finding it difficult to say goodbye. We hugged, and then we hugged again. We kissed and said goodbye. Then finding parting a sweet sorrow, we kissed once more.

A casual passer-by may have rolled their eyes, thinking, ‘Enough with the PDA!’ Or, maybe a more indulgent stranger thought, ‘Young love, eh?’ One thing I am sure, no one would have guessed that a couple of years ago I did not know how I could go on in our difficult marriage.

Opposites attract

Our story is a classic one of opposites attract. Sometimes I wonder how we ever found our way to each other. I can only guess that it was God.

I grew up in a small town, surrounded by a large close-knit family. Our life was centred around our church community. I grew up in its embrace, knowing I was loved by God. I also inherited a typically Christian type of perfectionism. I put a lot of effort into creating a mask of perfection—I got straight As, dieted obsessively, ran every day. Even my Bible reading was regimented. I knew I was saved by grace, but acted as if I was saved by works. Having said that, I was captivated by my relationship with Jesus.

My husband grew up in the heart of the city, the eldest of three children, with poverty nipping at their heels. His father was a violent abuser who regularly beat his mum—when Josh tried to stand up for her, he would turn on his son.

At the age of 14, Josh held up a knife to his father’s throat and said, ‘If you ever beat my mother again, I will kill you’. Shortly after that, his dad left. Many of Josh’s young memories (while I was playing party games at youth group) were of working, helping his mother make ends meet. School faded into the background. By the time he was 16, Josh was an angry young man, starting brawls in bars.

But his younger sister had found faith, and so had his mother. They asked him to church every week, until he finally gave in ‘just to shut them up’. And he kept coming back. Josh will tell you that becoming a Christian saved his life. The youth leaders became his mentors—teaching him about God and showing him what it meant to be a man.

Meet cute

We met in what could arguably be the most boring way possible: an annual general meeting. It was not what film scriptwriters would call a ‘meet cute’.

We were both young Christians, involved in a national youth charity. I guess there are worse ways to meet than over a shared passion!

Josh caught my eye as he greeted others affectionately and cracked a couple of jokes. He was handsome, with a shock of deep auburn hair. I was surprised when, the next day, he added me as a friend on Facebook (yes, Facie has been a dating tool for more than a decade!). Shortly after came our first date. I was impressed by his intelligence, love for Jesus and warm personality. Our fledging relationship quickly blossomed into love.

Within a year we were engaged. I knew that there would be difficult times ahead—everyone says marriage is hard—but I thought to myself, ‘Whatever adversity we face, we’ll be in it together’. Thank God that love is blind.

Descent into darkness

I was the definition of a people pleaser, and (subconsciously) spent a lot of energy making sure no one was ever angry at me. But it turned out that my husband was angry at me.

In our first years of marriage, he would storm out, call me names, make threats … he threw things and made other violent gestures. I felt sure he would never hit me, but there were times when his anger descended into emotional and verbal abuse.

I had zero skills to cope with this. None of my well-rehearsed people-pleasing efforts seemed to work. Instead, I withdrew into myself. I would shut him out, emotionally and physically. I couldn’t look him in the eye or speak to him. For every angry word he said to punish me, I could punish him equally with my silence.

Instead of facing adversity together, as I had imagined we would, we each took to our corner—blaming each other and protecting ourselves. We established our roles: he was the aggressor, I was the wounded animal.

This only became more heightened when we began having children. I managed my anxiety by striving to be the perfect mother. It wasn’t just sleep deprivation that wore me out; it was the striving—to be the perfect breast-feeder, sleep whisperer and nurturer. I suffered in silence.

Josh didn’t have this problem. There were times when he yelled or stormed out. I misinterpreted this as meaning I had to redouble my efforts, and cope enough for everyone. It all came crashing down, of course. I began suffering panic attacks and found it difficult to leave the house.

Yelling it out

I wish I could say this was the wake-up call we needed to make change. I wish I could say there was a magic cure. But there wasn’t. We stayed in survival mode for a very long time.

Josh stayed angry. I stayed sick.

But my illness did make me confront my own coping mechanisms. I literally could not go on suffering in silence.

I had to find my voice and begin to express my feelings. Once the dam had broken, my buried anger spewed out in fits of rage—something I had never experienced in my adult life. I felt like I had reverted to my childlike self—the tantruming-toddler version of me.

In this next season of our marriage, I began pushing back more. Things got worse before they got better. While our roles had been unhealthy, we each knew them. Now we were in a push-and-pull tussle, each trying to work out where we fitted in the marriage.

But this was also a blessing in disguise because Josh and I actually began to talk (well, more accurately, yell). We weren’t communicating well, but it was the beginning of re-negotiating our roles in our marriage. Over time, we put boundaries down for behaviour, and consequences if those boundaries were violated.

Josh knew his violent upbringing was coming back to haunt him, and he always had the desire to do better. We went to counselling, and began to implement strategies.

And there was also God. Every time I came to the end of myself, God would give me just enough to try again. I remember one night I was so upset that I went for a drive in the middle of the night. I even called my friend and told her the kids and I needed a place to stay.

When I finally returned home, Josh was in tears. He said he was sorry, and I could see how broken he was. From out of my mouth came the words, ‘Josh, you are not your father’. At this, he broke down. We talked openly about his fear of repeating the cycle, and I found a compassion within me that had been lost along the way.

Freedom in failure

Again, there was no miracle cure for our marriage. We failed more often than not, but there were small, incremental changes over time. Sometimes it was sheer stubbornness that kept me going. Sometimes it was the fact that we had stood in front of a lot of people promising to be together ‘til death do us part’. Every now and again, a still, small voice reassured me there was still hope.

I remember one day sitting down by our local river. It was such a peaceful moment—the water was babbling, while tui sang in the trees. In despair, I cried out to God: ‘Why, God, why am I in this place?’ I felt the trees whisper to me: ‘It is for moments like these.’

I suddenly understood that my faith was not about ‘doing the right thing’. It was about allowing God into my broken heart and letting him comfort me. It was about staying by the streams of living water, even in the valley of death. The greatest lesson I have learned is that it is okay not to be perfect. There is freedom in failure.

In our journey together we have travelled winding and dangerous roads, we have gone back, then forward, then back again. Then, eventually, we found ourselves at some sort of destination. I guess that destination is love—born not from romantic gestures, but from seeing each other at our most raw, vulnerable, and often worst, selves.

Josh has become my true companion. I admire the way he is so warm with people and so loving with me—telling me daily that he loves me. He is my greatest advocate and accepts me for who I am. This is a gift. We laugh and enjoy each other’s company—even if it’s just nights on the couch together (while we both look at our own devices, but together!). Our children know they are loved. And they also know that Mum and Dad love each other. Do we still fight? Of course! We are not perfect.

But back to the airport: yes, I am in love with my husband. And I don’t care who sees us—because we have fought demons and gone through deep waters for our love. True romance isn’t found at the end of a rom-com. It begins where the rom-com ends. I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into on our wedding day, because we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Names and some details have been changed to protect their privacy.

by Ingrid Barratt (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 10 February 2018, pp6-9
You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.