When our granddaughter was one-year-old, we piled into the van and headed to Airlie Gardens, a local favorite, to take in Christmas lights and festivities.
I felt impatient and anxious as we squished into a noisy line of parents and toddlers, that encircled the building, just to see Santa. Right away I overheard a conversation between a man and woman. Their tone was clipped and harsh as they tried to keep the volume low. It had to do with their child. When the man walked away briefly, a stranger entered the conversation. “I’m glad I don’t have to argue any more about my son; I got a divorce. It’s much easier making all the decisions myself.”
Instantly, I knew I’d ponder this and try to get my thoughts down on paper. With a little cynicism, I thought, oh to be alone. As if aloneness is bliss, where I’m boss and can disregard other views and opinions. Only my self would matter. I felt sad for the woman and her son. Had she bailed out too soon? Had she missed a chance to see her life transform by sacrificially loving another person?
In the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about togetherness and aloneness in marriage. My husband Tom and I lived weekdays apart for almost two years. He’d taken a job in another state and I stayed home to take care of necessary things, such as our daughter’s wedding and helping out with our first grandchild. I was surprised and a bit concerned to find how easily we adapted to living alone week after week. Sure, we’d look forward to our times together. But in between we learned to adjust quite well to independent self-serving routines. Even sleeping alone had its advantages. For me, it was a much quieter, restful sleep. Acclimating again to the sound of snoring wasn’t easy.
Soon after I moved to Columbia, my husband and I drove to Lowe’s to purchase a clothes dryer. As we turned into the parking lot, I rolled my eyes at the unorthodox, roundabout way he maneuvered into the spot. I said to him, tongue-in-cheek, “Tom, if you would just do everything exactly like I do, and say things exactly like I say them, you’d never bug me and we’d get along perfectly.” We laughed, and I acknowledged to myself, this was my Achilles’ heel in a nutshell. Selfishness. There is in all of us a natural impulse to do things our own way. We’re aware of these tendencies in all human relationships, but none more than marriage.
It’s understandable when married couples live apart for a season because of jobs or when a spouse is deployed. Just recently I was chatting with a girlfriend about a mutual friend. The husband and wife were living separately while the husband was employed in a different city. My girlfriend said, “You know, I can really see how that could be easier”. I thought, of course! It’s easier to be alone—you have only yourself to consider.
Sometimes I wonder why people want to get married in the first place. I wanted a man to love me and make me happy. I was a follower of Christ and I’d read Scripture and books about marriage. I knew a lot, I thought. But what part of my plan would make his life better? Do we go into that Very Important Relationship and think, now I get to deny myself and serve another person. I finally get to wash someone’s dirty underwear and clean up the messes he leaves in the kitchen. I may even need to hold my tongue or change the way I squeeze the tube or load the dishwasher. I might need to give affirmation and a loving touch, even if I don’t feel like it.
Some people are forced to live alone in different geographical areas. Others live alone while under the same roof. I worry about them all. I truly believe that a marriage’s default is separation. None of us really need to try to focus on ourselves; we have to work to keep our marriage covenant the priority. I’m afraid couples don’t know how easily they can lose what was once the Most Important Thing.
Marriage isn’t an organism that magically keeps two people together. It’s an organism that requires its parts to work in a coordinated fashion to keep it going.
While nothing has revealed to me my self-focus and self-preservation like marriage, absolutely nothing has brought me more purpose and joy. Our marriage hasn’t been perfect in every way, but it’s gotten better over the years as we have gotten better at surrendering to Jesus and putting each other first. The covenant of unending and unmerited love for another person. The adapting to the other in a way to actually change the person I am, and grow the person that he is. It’s just one of the most beautiful, meaningful arrangements divinely appointed to humans.
When asked his secret of love, being married fifty-four years to the same
person, he said, “Ruth and I are happily incompatible.”-Billy Graham