Enjoy this excerpt from Enjoy Every Minute and Other Ridiculous Things We Say to Moms
#7—Kids Come First—You Can Work on Your Marriage Later
Four Sets of Five Words
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. —Song of Solomon 8:6
I love talking with the young people in my life about relationships and marriage. My daughters, their friends, my nieces and nephews are curious. They want to understand how relationships work. Occasionally, they will ask me some of their burning questions, such as, “Do you believe in ‘the one’? Do you think there is one person out there just for you—you know, your soul mate?” Some of the young people I know have grown cynical. They’ve told me they do not want to get married because they don’t want to ever go through a divorce. And they certainly don’t want their children to ever experience the pain of a broken home. They see the two as a package deal: divorce as the inevitable end to a marriage doomed from the start.
For those who don’t see marriage in their future, when I’ve asked if they want to have children, some have said they will adopt a baby and be a single parent. The idea of raising a child alone seems more feasible than making a marriage work and avoiding divorce. They’ve heard the statistics on how many marriages end in divorce, and more significantly, they’ve lived it. Many of them, having grown up in Christian homes, have experienced the reality of these statistics, and they wonder why. I wonder why.
The best answer I can give is that across the board, marriage is hard for most of us. And Christians don’t get a pass when it comes to the pain and brokenness we all carry with us into our marriages. Christians aren’t immune to the hardships, illnesses, addictions, anxiety, depression, temptations, isolation, and pain most couples experience at some point in marriage. Not only do we all struggle with these things, but we may also feel the pressure and need to pretend that we don’t. We are supposed to be an example to those around us. We think others expect us to have it all together. We are called to be salt and light, and when we fall short, fail, and do things Christians aren’t supposed to do, we hide. We feel ashamed, and because of our shame, we can’t bear the thought of anyone knowing the truth. We put on a smiling face at church, we post our happy family pictures on social media, and we feel like hypocrites because no one really knows what is going on behind closed doors.
If we want to break the cycles and patterns of relational brokenness and shame, we need to be honest and vulnerable. We need to normalize our struggles and let our kids see us bravely ask for help. We must resist every urge to hide and pretend, and instead, own up to our shortcomings. We see the gaps in our families between where we want to be and where we are. Our kids live in those spaces. When we do not reconcile these discrepancies and talk about the fault lines running through our relationships and our families, we set our kids up for disillusionment.
Sometimes we forget that marriage was God’s idea. He created it for our good, and I want the young people in my life to know that God has a purpose in marriage. In both the good and the hard seasons, he wants to heal us, transform us, and teach us how to really love. He wants us to learn to rely on his strength and look to him for all our needs. And he gives our children a front-row seat as he does his redemptive work.
When we marry, we choose to become family with our spouse for the rest of our lives. I’ve told my daughters, “I hope that on your wedding day you are crazy in love with your husband. I hope you feel like no other couple on the planet has anything close to the amazing love you’ve found in each other. And, I also pray that when those feelings fade—and they will—and when hard times come—and they will—that you will not be surprised. There will be times when loving your spouse will be as easy as breathing. You won’t even have to try. And there will be times when loving him will be the hardest, most sacrificial thing you’ve ever done. In fact, you won’t be able to do it on your own. You will hurt each other more than you can imagine, and you will need God’s help to forgive. When you say, ‘I do,’ you are signing up for a life-long journey of transformation. You are pledging to love each other through the good and the bad, the best and worst of times, whatever comes your way, for the rest of your lives.”
In his book Sacred Marriage, author Gary Thomas writes, “The beauty of Christianity is in learning to love, and few life situations test that so radically as does a marriage. . . . If we view the marriage relationship as an opportunity to excel in love, it doesn’t matter how difficult the person is whom we are called to love; it doesn’t even matter whether that love is ever returned. We can still excel at love. We can still say, ‘Like it or not, I’m going to love you like nobody ever has.’”
I speak up in defense of marriage because I believe it is where God does some of his most holy, transforming work. And I tell my kids triumphant stories of people who have persevered in love, people like my friend, Bob.
I met Bob and Jan several years ago at my workplace. Even though they were thirty years my senior, we hit it off right away. (I have a soft spot for people with more wisdom, life experience, and gray hair than me.) They had just moved from Florida to Chicago, and although they were happy to be near their son, they missed the warmer climate and their friends back home. Jan seemed to especially miss it, and they both were dealing the best they could with the diagnosis that had prompted the move: Jan was suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Bob and Jan visited my workplace regularly, and over time, we developed a lovely friendship. Some days were better than others; Jan would greet me warmly and was able to make simple decisions. But other times, Jan didn’t seem to know who I was or what we were talking about. On those days, I’d compliment her nail polish color and just let her do the talking. Sometimes she would tell me surprising stories— I’d nod my head as I listened, and Bob would be standing behind her shaking his head and mouthing the words No – this never happened. He often had to repeat the same answer to the same question over and over again, and although I could sense the frustration of the situation, their love for one another was apparent. He took care of her. She trusted him.
As the disease progressed, her memory deteriorated to the point that she no longer recognized her husband of nearly sixty years. One afternoon, I heard the chimes on the door signaling a customer, and in walked Bob, alone. I gave him a hug and asked how things were going, and he told me the disease had progressed significantly. Jan was now consistently confused and agitated. He had come in that day just to talk, and in a moment of raw honesty, he unwrapped the burden he was carrying and shared his pain with me. “This disease is horrific. The part-time caregiver who has been coming to our home is not enough. Jan will need full- time care very soon, and the cost is overwhelming. I think we need to go back to Florida where it is not so expensive.” I could see the heartbreak in his eyes, and of course, there were no words I could say to make it better. All I could do was listen and be his friend.
As he looked out the window of the store, Bob spotted a three-legged dog walking with his owner, and he insisted we step outside to take a closer look. Sure enough, the dog was walking on three legs, and Bob seemed genuinely tickled by this survivor-wonder dog. As he left the shop that day, I affirmed him for the way he lovingly cared for his wife. I told him I would be praying for him and Jan, and for the difficult decisions he was facing. The words may have sounded cliché, but I meant them. I would pray for them because it was the only thing I knew to do.
Then, almost as if talking to himself, he said something I did not immediately understand, but would never forget.
“Four sets of five words.”
I didn’t get it, so I asked him to repeat it.
He looked back at me, his blue eyes filled with tears, expressing the promises he had made a lifetime ago, the values he had lived by for over half a century, the vows he would keep until God called Jan home.
“Four sets of five words. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. In sickness and in health. Till death do us part.” And then he was gone, and I was standing speechless.
When most of us make our marriage promises, if we even use these traditional vows, we are usually in a season of better, richer, and health. We are not thinking about what worse and sickness and poorer might look like down the road. When Bernie and I said our vows to one another more than twenty-five years ago, we had no idea that a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis was waiting for him in his future. Staying together as husband and wife requires a commitment to love one another through the best and worst this life brings. It means when we want to quit, we keep going and take the next right step. When our problems are more than we can handle, we humble ourselves and get help. When our hearts get hard, we allow God to soften them. We choose to forgive. We put our spouse first. We choose to love the way we want to be loved, which is the way God has loved us. Four sets of five words—every day we are given opportunities to make good on our promises, to choose to live out these vows we made so long ago.
And in the worse, the poorer, the sickness, and— someday—the death, we are invited to wholeheartedly trust in a God who is always present with us, a God who is always good. The vows we make to love our spouse “till death do us part” come from the heart of our God who has promised to never leave us, to be with us in the best of times and in the absolute worst of times.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Reprinted with permission from Enjoy Every Minute and Other Ridiculous Things We Say to Moms, Becky Baudouin, August, 2020