I love older people. I could spend hours listening to stories of days gone by and asking endless questions. When the children were small, once a week we would pack everyone up and visit our local nursing home. The girls would sing and give tons of smiles. The boys would accept pinches on the cheek and smile, too young to understand.
There is a wisdom in those who go before us. They have experienced life and, if they have navigated well, they have insights to share. I’m now a grandmother and making my way to the group of people I love the most. These days I’m still asking questions, but I’m also being asked the questions.
I have two daughters who are happily married and another daughter in a serious relationship. As we discuss everything from the trivial to the complicated, I have the privilege and responsibility to share what I’ve learned about marriage.
The Meaning of Tough
When I was new to marriage, I didn’t have a mother who had the wisdom of navigating well to share with me. Having been adopted in my teens, I grew up in several different homes. I observed marriages, rarely happy ones. My tough-as-nails determination, coupled with my naivety that success is based on one’s hard work, I set out to have a successful marriage.
When things got hard, I would ask for advice from the pastor’s wife or a friend. I remember hearing a phrase often: “Marriage is tough, you have to work at it.” This is a true and correct sentence; however, it’s also one of subjectivity. What I mean is that your manner of defining tough will determine your interpretation of that statement. I had lived a tough life. I had survived a children’s home, abuses of all sorts, and a mother who did not have my good in mind. So, tough to me meant something different than the woman I was asking advice from. Tough in my thinking equaled abuse.
However, as I am now many years down the road and in a second marriage with an amazing man, my conversations with my daughters are often preempted by a discussion about the meaning of tough. As a planner and organizer, I like to compartmentalize, so the word tough is neatly arranged into three different degrees.
My husband is a very active and health-conscious man. He exercises daily and has the super power of saying no to sweets. I, on the other hand, love to sit and read or work on the computer, and baking and cooking are my all-time favorite pastimes. He is a bit older than I am, but I have a hard time keeping up with his energy level.
In the area of finances, my husband is equally disciplined. Debt free and hard working, he doesn’t use credit cards and has spent his life saving. I, on the other hand, have an entrepreneurial spirit and love the points systems with all the free flights and hotels to be had on credit cards. I love to take risk and think about saving at a later date.
Then there’s music and movies. My adorable hubby loves country and bluegrass. I like Bethel praise and worship along with hip hop. I dream of evenings cuddled up to a musical or Jane Austen movie, but my husband’s military background and career in firearms typically has us choosing an action-packed movie. (Popcorn is more enjoyable during these types of movies, I’ll give him that!)
When someone says marriage is tough, they could be referring to the lifestyle differences when two distinct people come together, each raised with different values, parenting styles, and traditions. Couple that with personality differences, and it can be tough to work through differing preferences. Tough in this scenario is a matter of loving each other enough to work on a compromise in order to strengthen the marriage. This takes maturity and giving of one’s self.
We sometimes chuckle when we hear our daughters telling us all the plans they have for the future. They come by planning naturally, I’ll give them that, but my husband and I know full well that life doesn’t always go as planned. That’s the next level of toughness in marriage: dealing with disappointments.
Sometimes it’s a job that doesn’t work out that had promises of financial security. Perhaps it’s an intimate life that doesn’t have all the spark it once had. Maybe it’s devastating to realize your spouse doesn’t desire to be involved in parenting. At some point in every marriage, disappointment strikes.
If it’s a spouse who’s struggling with sin or a health crisis, the level of tough that hits us causes our faith to be challenged, and we draw close to each other as we pray for our spouse and for ourselves. This past year, my darling husband, a model of health and fitness, discovered he needed a triple bypass due to his family genes. This was beyond shocking and disappointing; this was a real scare. The following months were full of sleep deprivation as we both worked at his recovery. There was sacrifice on my part while he learned to depend on me, both of us challenged in ways we had never known.
There is beauty in the valleys of disappointments. Although the terrain is thorny and it can feel like pricks from every side, this is when a deeper closeness is formed as two people learn to communicate better, become more vulnerable with each other, and deepen empathy for each other.
I recently read the perfect synopsis to the tough I would define as abuse: A destructive relationship is one in which the personhood of the other is regularly diminished, dismissed, disrespected, and demeaned.¹
It is said that what we know becomes our normal. I have often said that my first marriage was to someone just like my mother. I had been conditioned to believe that abusive treatment was normal, so I married into it.
In abusive relationships, you feel diminished when your spouse refuses to work to provide for you and the kids. You feel dismissed when you try to discuss problems and it’s turned into a lecture on your unworthiness. You feel disrespected when your spouse lies to you and about you in order to set the stage to continue getting away with his sins. You feel demeaned when criticism is the standard and you can never cook a meal, clean a house, or homeschool well enough.
I was made to believe that I was always the problem. I needed to be better, I would never be good enough. I would spend months perfecting pie recipes and learning to cook the most difficult recipes. I scrubbed the floors by hand. I diligently taught the kids on a rigid daily schedule. I spent hours in prayer trying to figure out if there was sin I hadn’t recognized. I was caught up in the whirlwind of an abusive person who kept the focus off of him and on me.
The abusive marriage is one where you don’t feel free to be yourself, you often feel confused, and you experience depression and a general lack of joy. No matter how hard you work at the problem, it just doesn’t get any better. Oh, there are times when an abusive spouse, when threatened with a firm boundary and possibly losing the control they have, will make all kinds of promises and might even, for a time, show signs of changing. Unfortunately, it often returns to a cycle of broken promises and repeated destructive patterns.
There is a line of thinking that only physical abuse and unfaithfulness warrants a biblical divorce, but I have to disagree. My ex-husband stopped hitting me by the seventh year of marriage, but the emotional, spiritual, and financial abuse continued for fourteen more years, leaving lasting scars. His desertion and refusal to work to provide, coupled with my discovery of his rampant unfaithfulness, allowed me a way out.
Today I’m married to an amazing man who makes me feel better about myself on a daily basis. He encourages me, loves me, shows love towards me, and is for my good. A healthy marriage isn’t without tough times. There are lifestyle differences and disappointments we will walk through, but there’s a drastic difference between tough and abusive. I hope what I have learned prevents my daughters from confusing the two terms.