My husband and I recently found ourselves at the brink of marriage failure and in clawing our way back we encountered the single best piece of marital advice we’ve ever heard. Actually it’s the only advice that’s ever rang true, right and doable over the very long haul that every marriage is. It’s advice that’s ethereal in its authenticity and power. When we encountered it we knew without a doubt that heeding this instruction was how we would get back to our set point and even soar beyond what we’ve been settling for and on to new heights. The reason we knew it was going to work for us is because we had not done it with much regularity in the 20 years we have been married and we recognized this to be where we went wrong.
Looking back over two decades of being committed to each other, we can’t recall any other relationship advice that worked for us, and that worked again, and again and again. Because that’s what marriage is; trial and error and rebooting. Again and again and again. Since different sets of circumstances can cause each of the failures or crashes, we need lots of different tools on hand to repair the damage. Forgiveness, compromise, and selflessness are some of the go-to implements. But darn it, those things are tricky to use and they break so easily.
If you have lots of well maintained equipment though and you’ve learned to use it all with skill, if you’ve mastered the process of damage control and think you have arrived at marriage nirvana, that’s exactly where the hidden danger lurks. Because when we think we have arrived we can get complacent, lazy even; thinking our hard work is done and it’s high time we rest and bask in the glory of the marital bliss we’ve accomplished. In a marriage, a union of two imperfect people, the hard work of accepting that imperfection and its consequences is never going to be finished. We will never ‘arrive.’
In the realm of iconic movie characters, my personality resembles Scarlett O’Hara’s. In that my inherent stubbornness, hot-headedness and Chicken Little-like outlook on life can commingle to morph me into a fiery orb of myopic rage and I need time to calm the fuck down before I’m fit to hash out a disagreement or a grievance. When I’m pushed to the point of crushing overwhelm, I need to peace out. I need to think about it all tomorrow or I’ll go a little crazy, just like Scarlett.
The age-old notion that we shouldn’t let the sun go down on our anger does not work in our house. I need the sun to go down. I need it to disappear into the night sky and come back a good sleep later. I need the sun to stay down long enough for my rage and despair to dissipate into a less harmful, less radioactive state before I can begin the hard work of conflict resolution, sans collateral damage. Otherwise, we’ll need the HAZMAT suits, again.
For me, there isn’t much that a good laugh or a good sleep won’t ease and make a little more palatable. Years later, I am still laughing about the time a good friend of mine sat down next to me on my couch, put her bare feet up on the coffee table and said, “look, I shaved my big toes for you.” A little levity goes a long way with me. After sleeping, I wake up at least a little but usually a lot renewed and ready to face the thing. I am calmer, more able to think it through with logic and positivity. Emotion no longer rules the day like it did the night. This is hard for my husband because he needs the opposite. If something is amiss, he needs immediate resolution and restored peace of mind and will rest at nothing until he gets it. This has been a recipe for disaster for us in the past. A clash of the Titans type disaster. For better or worse, Erik has chosen (read: been forced) to concede this point and let me push pause when I need to. He has learned to trust that I will do the hard work of conflict resolution, but sometimes I just need to do it the next day. So, common marital advice, like never go to bed angry, does not always work for us (read: me).
This is what works for us. This is what got our attention and gets to keep it: give each other your first and your best.
In your marriage, if you’re building or renovating on a solid foundation of love and you’re both willing to do the hard work it takes to stay married and make the union an enjoyable one, begin by giving each other your first and your best and never stop. Did you get some shivers or feel that deep in your bones? If you’re in that dark and scary place, I bet you did. If you’re not in the dark and scary place, good, I’m so glad. But it won’t hurt to keep this tool close by and ready to wield for the next time you are.
We were in a couples small group bible study years and years ago and I will never forget what one couple said to the group. With an overarching tone of prejudice and snobbish disdain, we were talking about divorce and one of the couples offered up that they had learned not to say, “we will never get divorced.” Because they almost did. Because even after having always said divorce was not an option, that they would never threateningly use the “D” word on each other, they had in fact found themselves right there at divorce’s front door and it was inviting them in to stay. They ultimately turned down that invitation and as a result of that experience what they learned to say instead was, “we will always fight our hardest against divorce.”
At the time, having not yet been through trials heavy enough to advance divorce into our View-master, I remember thinking, “well, it’s sad they came close to divorcing but WE will definitely never get divorced.” Divorce was a slide in their reel though and I felt bad for them but also like maybe they were doing marriage wrong but also like I should heed what they were saying. They had been to the brink and back and the outcome was they now understood divorce wasn’t just probable statistically speaking but also very possible right inside their own marriage. They knew that words and platitudes were not enough to keep divorce at bay and that real effort, the hardest of work and the fiercest fighting against it is what it takes. I paid attention to that.
We’ve been to divorce’s doorstep as well. Infidelity drove us there and kicked us out at the curb. We fought the urge to cross the threshold by learning to give each other our first and our best. It was a game changer. It suspended our downward spiral and it altered our trajectory. It sounds so simple but is it easy? No. And it might never be. Are we really good at it? No, not yet. Do we do it all the time? Nope. Because hard. Because life. Because imperfection. Because tired. Angry. Hurt. Let down. Distracted. Stressed. Selfish. But now, when we fall short of giving each other our first and our best, our barometer falls dramatically and we feel the negative change in pressure very quickly. The difference is that in years past, the pressure change was subtle but consistent and we became so accustomed to it we didn’t correct it. Our marriage eventually became a challenging climate and we did not know how to affect any real and lasting change.
What does giving each other your first and your best look like? I don’t know, because I’m not one of you two. But for us it looks like deliberately spending time alone together. Touching, talking, planning, hashing things out, reminiscing, what-if-ing and doing the things we do. We are social creatures and we have some fabulous friends (though I’m also a colossal introvert, both things are true) and we are tempted to put them on our calendar many days of the week. But if we did then our friends would be getting our first and our best.
For us it looks like learning to ride the wave of parenting in a way that mitigates crashing and burning on the reef. It looks like letting our kids know we beyond love them and we are committed to parenting them but after we love and care for each other. Because we were here before they were and soon it will be just the two of us again after they’ve gone. Because we were, they became, and without continual focus and nurturing we know how badly our marriage can deteriorate, into a toxic state that will harm them and cease to help them.
For us it looks like saying no to insidious, soul sucking distractions like our phones or Netflix or too many drinks. And no to more complicated interference like relatives that continually offer up drama, turmoil and stress instead of healthy interactions that shore us up and lend us strength.
It looks like loving each other with action and not just with words or intent. It looks like taking action for each other because it costs us our time and energy and not in spite of it. To give of our first and best means, ‘here you go, honey; this is what I have and it’s for you, take what you need and everyone else gets what is leftover.’ Not the other way around.
We took the other way around, and that not so merry-go-round threw us off and nearly broke us. We are still healing from the fall and we are doing it by giving each other our first and our best. It’s working. It will continue to work as long as we continue to do it. And now, we will always fight our hardest against giving our first and our best to someone or something else.
P.S. ‘Give each other your first and your best’ came from the book, What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul David Tripp. Erik found this book and we read it together, chapter by chapter, pausing to talk about each one in turn. I wish like hell I had read this book before I got married, so does Erik. I highly recommend it for any and all marriage folk. I give it to brides-to-be at their bridal showers now. I send it anonymously in the mail to anyone that sends me an S.O.S about their marriage. And now I’m telling you about it. It’s the shit. It really is.