I was talking with a friend who has been married much longer than I. As our conversation turned to serious things, I decided to take a chance and voice a realization that had been burning a hole in my heart for a while. It was something that I needed an older, godly woman’s perspective on and that honestly, came from a place of fear inside of me. I am pretty sure I whispered it as I said it.
“I’m not who Jeff thought he was marrying.”
I was 16 years into my marriage at the time I said this – and 16 years is a long time. People don’t stay the same over a decade and a half of living, losing and doing the stuff of life. Here is what makes it so terrifying…if you walk with someone well, if you walk with God well, you can’t stay hidden. Who you really are on the inside eventually comes out. The experiences that have made you who you are. The things you didn’t even know were there. The things you hoped would never come up or that you thought you could handle privately. I was in the middle of a season like this and I knew I wasn’t going to be the same at the end of it.
Fortunately this friend said something wise and comforting to my statement, “I’m not who Jeff thought he was marrying. She said, “Who is?”
The fact is, who we are at 20-something, is not who we will end up as. Sometimes, especially when Christ is in the mix, we have the potential to end up better. More compassionate, more loving, more kind, gentle, sacrificial, more of a joy to be around. And sometimes, over the years, people go dark. Bitterness. Resentment. Guilt. Regret over lost opportunities, mistakes, choices. Grief from losses. Suffering that warps the heart and personality.
I knew I was in the process of a season of great spiritual transformation, with Jesus doing some deep heart work in my life. Not becoming a different person – just more of the same person, with more of Jesus thrown in. Every Christ-follower should do this periodically, having seasons where His work in our lives is particularly acute. The problem for me at that time was that I was changing rapidly and in ways I couldn’t have predicted or controlled. There was a lot of repentance going on. A lot of redefining who I was at the core of my being. It was unnerving and a bit scary.
And I was worried Jeff wouldn’t like who I was becoming. Because I was finding I wasn’t nearly the same person he thought he was marrying. Fortunately, while Jeff’s exact words are private between us, he commented that he could very much see the redeeming work of Christ in me – and he liked that very, very much.
Based on this, I think a practice of married couples that builds a healthy marriage is allowing the other person the freedom and space to grow and change. To encourage it. To not insist that they stay the same.
And this is harder than it seems.
We get stuck in ruts, in relational patterns that get very comfortable over time. Generally, we don’t like change. In fact, I think most couples don’t ever really change how they relate to each other unless there is a powerful motivator to do so. Pain is about the only motivator I can think of that is strong enough. And when people are in pain, they are often not very nice.
But… what if couples put into their relational rhythms a time and season for conversations that made it ok to change. “I don’t like how we are relating on this particular topic. It seems unhealthy. Could we re-negotiate how we do this?” It could be about money, in-laws, sex, free time activities… anything really. Our behavioral patterns play in our lives like annoying background music in a department store. We rarely notice it until we think, “Something here isn’t right …and this is so uncomfortable, I should leave right now.” It is one thing to walk out of a store. It is another to leave (emotionally, as well as physically) your marriage.
Or, “Babe, I am willing to listen and not respond, to really hear you out…is there an area of my character that you think I should concentrate on during this next season of life? Is there something I am doing that I should stop, something I am not doing that I should start?” And as an aside, smart married people always begin with asking how they can change and love better, volunteering to go first and learn to be a better spouse, rather than “suggesting” to their spouse how they think the other should change.
Creating the safe places for these types of conversations every few months or yearly, inviting and allowing your spouse to become all they were made to be, even when it changes the nature of your relationship, can be a powerful practice that leads your marriage to a new and more mature level.