Scott and I (Sue) are a couple of ordinary Christians who found ourselves in an all-too-common situation: a disappointing, miserable, and failing marriage. We could hardly understand how we got into that state of affairs. Twenty years along in what we thought had been a basically happy marriage, we were at an impasse. We were full of frustration, confusion, and anger, each convinced the other was primarily at fault for landing us in our predicament.
We reached our breaking point after years of slowly developing bad patterns of relating. Like the frog in the pot, we didn’t know what was happening to us. Then came a period of several years when circumstances just brought out the worst in us, underscoring the fact that we had never learned to communicate and resolve conflicts. We “crashed” in January of 1998. Scott brought up an issue, again, that meant nothing but pressure and pain to me. I clammed up, he went out to give me “space,” and I broke down in tears. I was at the end of my ability to tolerate tension and non-communication.
It seemed to me there were three paths at that juncture, and each one looked unacceptable. On one side was the path of trying to continue as we were despite the pain. Keep trying to hide the problems from everybody else. We had been doing that, and things were only growing worse. I couldn’t live with that any more. Scott’s behavior was incomprehensible to me by then, and he no longer listened to me. I had no idea how to communicate my feelings, so I just kept stuffing them back inside of me. Absolutely no more unexpressed feelings could fit! Scott, too, had slipped into depression by then, sensing things were going wrong, but not knowing what to do about it. Fear was beginning to overwhelm us. No, we absolutely could not go on the same way.
I looked down the path of separation and divorce. Lots of people do that. Doesn’t that make sense at some point? The pain gets too great, so go away from the thing that brings you pain. But we were missionaries. How could we be unfaithful to our marriage vows? Divorcing would mean losing our home, jobs, respect, reputation; it would shock everybody who knew us. We would be failures, rejects. How could we do that to our children or our parents? No, that path did not seem to be a good solution to anything. It looked like it would only multiply the pain.
A phrase reverberated through my mind that I must have read in magazines: Women who feel trapped in an unhappy marriage… That was surely me. I couldn’t stay and I couldn’t go.
Then there was the path of marriage counseling. Of course, I had heard hopeful stories of counseling that saved marriages. But to say that it wouldn’t be easy was an understatement. Logistically, it would mean a five-hour roundtrip drive over rough roads to the nearest Christian counseling center – for every appointment. It was also a substantial financial commitment on a limited salary. The people we worked with most closely would have to be informed. The counseling process itself was a big unknown. What horrible problems would it reveal? Would they even be solvable? Did I want to sit in front of a stranger and tell every last frightening, private feeling I had? Did I want to listen to Scott tell his? I already couldn’t cope with what I did know, how could I cope with any more?
By the time Scott returned home that night, I had made up my mind. I was ready to try the third path. It was the only one that offered the faintest glimmer of hope. Desperate for relief from his own depression, Scott readily agreed. Little did we know that it would be five very painful years before we would feel completely healed. But there, I’ve given away the climax of the story – we did reach healing.
But not without an incredible amount of hard work. We actually stayed celibate (though not by Scott’s choice!) for the first five months of the process, just so we could start afresh when we were good and ready. We had to accept astonishing revelations of our own faults, whereas we had both harbored the illusion that the other person was mostly to blame for our problems. Sometimes it was hard to push on when we seemed to be temporarily regressing, not progressing.
Our counselors led us through a wide array of issues, which they slowly uncovered through our discussions, temperament analyses, written assignments, and suggested reading. Co-dependency was written all over us; Scott struggled with anxiety and taming his obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I had hang-ups from being molested as a child, and having a brother who led a rebellious and immoral lifestyle; we had a royal case of sexual dysfunction. Scott had trouble handling our prematurely empty nest due to sending our children to missionary boarding school; he also struggled with jealousy and unfavorable comparisons. I was guilty of never adequately expressing my feelings; any introspection was anathema to me, so I ran from conflict and disagreement instead of resolving it. I complained that Scott didn’t listen to me – how could he, when I never gave him the chance? Since I kept quiet, he dominated and dumped his feelings on me, expecting me to fix him. I let smoldering resentment eat away at me.
How’s that for a list of problems? We had no idea of the many separate issues when we started, we just knew we were tired of living in misery and were determined to see the process through to the finish. And, glory to God, He remained faithful to us all that time. Hebrews 12:4-11 warns us that discipline will not be pleasant, but painful, yet it will yield pleasant results in the end. And Hosea 6:1-2 comforted me during the darkest days: “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.” It certainly felt like God tore our marriage into pieces, only to heal it much better than we could have hoped for.
Today Scott and I have a restored, healthy marriage. We can say without reservation we love each other. Scott learned to accept responsibility for his feelings, instead of expecting me to fix him. His anxiety and mood swings mellowed out with use of a Serotonin uptake inhibitor for several years. I learned how critically important open communication is. Scott learned to truly listen to my feelings, I stopped nursing resentments. Our sexuality is actually mutually enjoyable. Co-dependency is a thing of the past. Words cannot express the beautiful feeling of freedom from fear that we now experience. We still sometimes have misunderstandings, act selfishly, and say harsh words. But today’s complaints pale in comparison to the old ones. And we talk things through, putting into practice the lessons we learned with our counselors.
We are forever grateful we had the courage to take the third path. We are grateful to God that we didn’t give up and walk away from our marriage vows. We “went through fire and water” and not only survived, but thrived.