An Episode of Married Life

Here’s an interaction I had with my wife this morning that I would like to share (with her permission). I think people here will appreciate it, especially those who have been married a long time. The background is that my wife and I celebrated our 20th anniversary last month and have been spending time reflecting on our marriage since then.


My wife came into the bedroom and sat next to me on the bed with a grim look on her face. After a lengthy silence, she says, “Joel, I have some bad news to share with you. I haven’t been truthful with you or myself over the years, and I need to tell you something you need to know that has been weighing down on me for a long time.” It takes a moment for this to sink in, and then my mind begins to race with all the possible terrible secrets a wife might have kept from her husband, but I can’t imagine that any of them would be true. After a long pause, my wife says, “First, tell me what you feared most about getting married.”

Surprised by this turn, I don’t immediately respond, but the answer comes to me, and I say, “I was afraid that I might marry a woman like my mother, who would do to me what my mother did to my father.”

My wife nods, since this is the answer she expected. I see in her face that she is steeling herself to say something very hard. My hands grip the side of the bed as I wait and silently pray that God will grant me strength to bear whatever is coming. My wife says, “For twenty years I have hidden from you how truly bad I am. I am selfish, narcissistic, and self-destructive, just like your mother. You married a woman just like your mother.” And my wife goes on with several illustrations of the similarities.

A moment of incomprehension passes over me, and then I begin to laugh. My wife looks on with a bewildered face, wondering if my laughter is some strange reaction to despair. I ask her, “So this is your big reveal?” She nods, and I begin laughing again. Seeing that she is still confused, I say, “First of all, you aren’t a hundredth as bad as my mother was. Second, I already knew you were selfish, narcissistic, and self-destructive… but I love you anyway.” I see in my wife’s face that this is not at all the response she expected, so I explain further, “I am glad you see this in yourself now. Actually, you are not especially bad compared to any other woman, and the truth is that any woman I might have married would have been like my mother, because they’re all sinners.” I then laugh again, but this time my wife laughs with me. This last part pleases me most, because my wife has a hard time laughing at herself, and I think it is spiritually healthy to do so from time to time.

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Thanks for the sweet testimony from you and your wife. We’re coming up on 20 years in a few months. This conversation sounds like something that can really only happen after many years of marriage.

Being married is hard work.

Conversations like this, which feel risky to both parties, have to happen all through the years, but there is really no replacement for length of time you’ve been married and building trust together.

Now don’t get me wrong. Many marriages finally rupture after 20 or 30 years. Divorce after such a length of time is not surprising to me, but it is very sad. But what that means is that the couple hasn’t been doing the work of growing more and more honest in conversations, or else one has destroyed trust through some action.

Still, I have a theory that it takes 15 to 20 years to grow to trust one another enough to have these conversations with true honesty.

Or perhaps I’m just more of a sinner than others. (We’re coming up on 20 years.) Or perhaps I’m just very slow to know myself well enough to be truly honest.

But regardless of whether I’m right about length of time, what joy to have such conversations.

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I’m glad you enjoyed it because I thought it was really funny. I must have told my wife about my fear very early in our relationship, and later on she gained personal knowledge of my mother that showed that my fear was in fact very well justified. So from the beginning of our marriage she had the goal: Don’t be like Joel’s mother. But as the years went on, she came to realize that her actual goal might have been slightly different: Don’t look like you are being like Joel’s mother. And she started to see more clearly that she had some of the same traits as my mother (but don’t we all?). Then she began feeling that she was living a double life in which the woman she thought she was portraying to me was not the same as the woman she actually was. And it began to weigh heavily on her that she truly was like my mother although I didn’t see it because she hid it from me. So the time comes when she thinks she must pull off the mask, and that when I see that she is truly like my mother, I will be plunged into despair as I see my fear come true. She really believed that was going to happen. But the reality is that it is impossible to go for years hiding from a spouse who you truly are, so the only person she was deceiving was herself in thinking that she was better than she really was.

This is encouraging to hear because this was the time frame in which my wife and I resolved some difficult issues, and I felt regret that we had not done so earlier, but perhaps we could not have because we didn’t have enough maturity and insight.

Here is something remarkable. As I have mentioned elsewhere, my wife and I had a one year long distance relationship before we got married, and we spent time together in person only about one weekend a month. That might not seem like a lot of time to get to know each other, but in fact it was, and there were no surprises after we got married. I recently went back and read through the emails and letters we sent to each other before we were married and was astonished to see that the difficult issues we worked out twenty years later were the same difficult issues we faced during our courtship, including almost all of the same details. I had forgotten about that in the intervening years, but I guess what happened is that we were unable to resolve those issues early in our marriage so they were set aside and we became hardened towards each other for a time until God put it on my heart to deal with them so many years later.

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I’ve recently developed another theory that is not mutually exclusive with yours. People are shaped by previous sin (their own or that of others) and enter marriage with deficient patterns of love that they are mostly not aware of. At the beginning, the deficiencies are covered by the flush of the honeymoon period, and thereafter the couple becomes preoccupied with raising children, and all effort in growing in love is directed towards becoming better parents. But 15 to 20 years later the children are no longer very young and there is more space to assess the relationship between husband and wife, and at this point the deficiencies are more obvious.

For example, I recently fully realized that I entered marriage with a strong orientation towards love as a matter of duty and relational position and much less sense of love as a matter of emotion towards a person. This was a habit I had built up over many years in order to manage my relationship with my mother as well as other difficult circumstances, and while it is true that duty is an essential aspect of love, my failure to build up the emotional and personal side more was detrimental to my wife. And my wife had a deficiency in a different aspect of her love that was detrimental to me. These deficient patterns had always been there, but they were not so apparent to us earlier in our marriage, or were superseded by more pressing concerns.

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Those same things happen with us, and I suspect Paul’s command to love your wife are because boys will be boys.

Ah, but I thought I was loving my wife because I was doing loving actions and she was my wife. How is that not obeying Paul’s command? Or at least that was my reasoning. I did not sufficiently value of the personal and emotional aspect of love and in fact had been deprecating that aspect for many years.

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I’m going to resurrect this thread with a new angle. When my wife told me six months ago that she was just like my mother in being selfish, narcissistic, and self-destructive (and she now adds self-righteous, which was very much the case for my mother), I originally took it mostly as a quirky and funny anecdote. But as more time goes on, I see that it was much more true than I realized. I don’t have much basis for comparison, but it does seem that my wife may be (or used to be) more narcissistic and self-righteous than typical for a woman. And as God has sanctified her of these traits, what I did not see before has become clearly apparent by its absence.

Obviously, my wife was not narcissistic and self-righteous to the same degree or in the same way as my mother because otherwise I would not have married her. But there are some remarkable similarities. It is said that men marry women like their mothers, and it appears that I did so even though I intended to do the opposite. How could something like that happen? I have no idea, but a working hypothesis follows.

As a child, I had no way to change my mother from her narcissism and self-righteousness and therefore had to find some way to accommodate myself around her. One might imagine that I was clay filling the space around some hard and unyielding shape. But what happens when the shape is removed and the clay is fired? – the clay becomes a mold for the shape it once contained. So perhaps I married a narcissistic and self-righteous woman because my childhood experience shaped me in such a way that it was a natural fit despite my conscious intention otherwise.

Thoughts?

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Hey Joel it’s been a while since I dropped in on Sanityville.

I read your previous account and your update. Something that came to mind is that your mother probably would have never done for her husband what your wife did for you in seeking forgiveness. This seems either a testament to the flavor of your marriage that you have cultivated and protected, that perhaps your father didn’t know how to do, or perhaps God is giving you opportunity to forgive your mother by proxy, since you see in your wife whom you love and care for, the same qualities of your mother that made you fearful. But you clearly aren’t fearful in your marriage and don’t have to hold on to that fear from your mother either. Maybe there’s something else, only God knows his mysterious ways.

In either case it’s a blessing.

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It is a common thing to marry somebody like your mother. I guess I’ve never spent much time thinking about why that happens, especially in cases where one really explicitly doesn’t want to.

Come to think of it, let’s not.

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Joel, these conversations you are having (and have apparently built up to over the years) sound wonderful.

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When I realized that I might have married a woman like my mother, despite my intention not to, the complementary hypothesis immediately came to mind: my wife had married a man like her father. We explored that idea for awhile, but no parallels between me and my father-in-law were obvious. Then again, sometimes it is difficult to perceive truths about ourselves and our loved ones.

Last night, my wife recounted to me a painful episode with her parents that occurred long ago that she had pushed out of her mind. Although my wife had always spoken very well of her parents to me before, this old memory pointed towards an unpleasant truth about her father – in reality he had often been highly critical towards others and disdainful of weakness in others. This new awareness immediately pointed to another truth of which my wife had long been aware: her husband had also often been highly critical and disdainful of weakness. Even though my wife had been hurt many times by her father’s harshness towards mistakes and failures, it turns out that she married a man with the same negative character qualities. Apparently, the familiarity of the trait made her willing to tolerate what another woman would not have.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my father-in-law had a childhood experience similar to my own, except that his parents were meaner. But I give thanks that the Lord has spent many years sanctifying both him and me, and I pray that the generational sin will end now. Sometimes I wonder how my wife and I ever made it through twenty years of marriage considering our respective sinful character qualities (far more than we could have ever imagined on our wedding day), but we both had a commitment to marriage, and God is in the business of redeeming sinners and changing hearts.

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