The Gift of Loving
Within an hour of hitting the “save and publish” button on last week’s blog the messages started. Women were stunned to read experiences I described from my life that mirrored theirs. Some had never told anyone about the ways their husband would destroy any scrap of happiness, including their favorite things and personal items. They hadn’t known how to understand it, how to name it, or that other women endured it, too.
But the relief of knowing they weren’t crazy for thinking he was doing these things intentionally was followed by a fresh grief about what this revealed about their relationship and who he was. This is not what any of us imagined in our marriages and nothing prepared us for it. Like you, I believed in our love and (in our case) the vows we made before God and a congregation of family and friends.
With every new understanding or correct information we may gain, there’s always that other shoe that drops. We begin to see the whole of our lives with these men through a corrective lens, and what we see brings fresh heartache. But I’m here to hear you out and help you find your way. My purpose is to give you the material to help you understand what’s going on in your life, so that you can protect yourself, protect your children, identify your options and choose your best path.
Writing from my married life isn’t easy. And it certainly isn’t something I do cavalierly. Sometimes, when I hesitate before showing you a glimpse of my personal life like I did last week, that is when I become most sure that someone needs to read it—to know other men do it just as theirs does it them. If I had read anything like that from someone else, I may have stopped this circus earlier. Who knows, maybe I could have saved myself a decade or two. So, when you respond as you did last week, I am affirmed in my decision to continue to share my personal experiences.
Given the hard topics I have to cover here, you may wonder if I believe any marriages have anything to offer a woman at all. I don’t know about marriages now, but in my three decades in ministry I’ve seen marriages that worked and I’ve known people who were genuinely happy in them, often for a very long time—which brings me back to my family, and another glimpse of my life.
My eldest cousin died this past week. She was 79. I was the flower girl at her wedding—a pretty important day for both of us! Her husband died 7 years ago. They had 50 years together, having raised four children and ten grandchildren. What everyone in our family of cousins and aunts and uncles knew as those 50 years passed was that she was changed in that marriage.
“Elaine” started out as a fine young woman, but she became something so much more than that. She unfolded like a flower in her marriage. In loving and being loved, her confidence, joy, and kindness multiplied. When family gathered someone always quietly mentioned how she seemed to grow into her beauty as the years passed. She and her husband had a true-life partnership that did not waver, come what may.
In our latter years and separated by four provinces, “Elaine” and I connected again by email and social media. That 16-year age difference wasn’t so big after all. We shared quite deeply about our shared family roots and customs, and the way we had chosen to live differently from our parents in our own lives as adults. At the same time, we loved our family very much.
For my cousin, it was her relationship with her husband that made it possible for her to deepen her capacity for life, and also participate more authentically in it. I began to see how such covenanted love based in positive mutuality was meant to work in us for good. And I also began to understand her inconsolable grief that persisted after her beloved husband died. Even with four children and many grandchildren who loved her completely, she “wobbled” without her life partner and worked really hard to participate in life fully in order to get her sea legs again.
Most of us wanted her to “move on” and “get past” the loss. So, she stopped referring to it and just soldiered on doing what seemed like the best thing to do—sort of like what I did after “losing” three decades of my life to a “non-marriage”. And like the people around her, the people around me wanted me to move on, too. So there we were, both learning to press on in life after such shocking loss. We talked openly about coping with all of it, consoled each other and encouraged each other every time we chose to keep at this thing called life.
When I cautiously told her about meeting Marc and feeling love again, I shared his story, too, and how we were tentatively building a relationship. She eagerly encouraged me with a similar story about someone in her own congregation who also found love come unexpectedly and how much goodness there was yet to receive in life. I could believe her because she knew what love was and how much it gave her. She helped me believe in love again—first in my love, and then in Marc’s.
In telling the truth of my life, I don’t abandon my respect for love and relationships that are committed and sometimes formalized with marriage or other partnerships. I’m in a committed relationship now! Why would I not believe in love? It sustains me every day and has given me more love in the last 8 years with Marc than I ever knew in my marriage. I didn’t even know what it meant to be loved until Marc loved me. I have nothing but gratitude and respect for love, even though I tell the truth about lies that trap women into accepting that love is really about accepting less than you deserve and staying compliant with that assumption. Love is so much better than that and so much more. I believe in the power of love to change our lives for good.
My cousin was married for 50 years before her beloved husband died too soon. And she died knowing that their love together was greatest and most powerful gift she ever received.
But those truths, dear readers, are not about staying in a relationship that dishonors you. These are the gifts of adult love that stand against and sometimes transcend the cultural, institutional, religious, misogynist, patriarchal instruments that normalize the idea that men should have this kind of love, but women should expect much less and shut up about it.
My cousin stayed in her marriage because that relationship never asked her to leave the value and worth of her life behind. Instead, it nurtured those things. In a good relationship we never leave that place of our own sacred value. Our responsibility is to be naming that, teaching that, and modeling that for our children. Anyone or anything that asks us to forget about it, or wants us to set aside it aside for a man showing no capacity to honor, respect, or live up to the value of our lives is not our friend and certainly not our helper. It’s that simple, that important, and that true.
I am so grateful that my cousin asked me to be her flower girl in 1962. My little magical blue dress with the pink crinoline still hangs upstairs. It’s moved with me 9 times since I became an adult myself. Being in her wedding was the most important moment of my childhood, and she gave me that moment.
It was standing room only at my cousin’s celebration of her life and witness to her faith. Trusting in the Mystery of all our beginnings and all our endings, I carry flowers in my heart for her today, believing in love that is the expression of positive mutuality with another human being—a fair, free, joyful, passionate, respectful, generous, loving and exclusive exchange of value for value in our lives. And I believe in the families we can create with that powerfully positive love.
Yes, I believe that great love is possible. And I’ve a pretty good hunch that’s what you are bringing to the table of your primary relationship. The question is whether you are getting that in return.