“The first year of marriage is really hard,” we heard over and over again in the lead up to our wedding, so I set my expectations low and braced myself for conflict. Would it be about how to squeeze the toothpaste and the cleanliness of the house, or would it be over more life direction stuff like whose career took priority?
When things were pretty sweet between us during our first year of marriage, we were warned that was just a honeymoon period; the second year would be harder as reality set in. Again I braced myself. Imagine my surprise that here we are at 10 years and, despite all the external pressures and even trauma, we’re still waiting for that storm.
I’m a big fan of setting your expectations low – I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than crushed or disappointed, so in a way I’m thankful for the warning about the hardship of marriage. Part of the attempt by the Christian church in the west to build ‘good marriages’ has been to develop a theology of marriage that cuts against a worldly notion that marriage is about self-fulfilment: “marriage is a beautiful thing that only reaches what it was designed to be through the methodology of a painful process.” Marriage sanctifies our natural tendency toward selfishness and in fact we say, this is its very purpose. You have to become less in order for your marriage to become more.
While I see the power in those images, they haven’t rung true of my experience of marriage over the last ten years. To use some botanic imagery, my experience of marriage has not been one of being pruned. It’s been one of blossoming. Marriage has not felt like God’s tool to rid me of my selfishness, but like the place God has provided for me to grow in directions I may not have had the courage to on my own, and to become more myself. For all the talk of how hard marriage is, for me, it’s been more like that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when the visitors are heading down a cramped corridor and through a tiny door only to discover that it opens into the chocolate room which is impossibly large and beautiful.
The beauty for me has been in a tremendous sense of unity. Because I occasionally write and teach on gender, including marriage, people sometimes ask me what you do when you reach an impasse, when one partner in the marriage strongly desires one thing and the other desperately wants something incompatible. I struggle to answer that because that’s not been something Arthur and I have felt. We don’t agree all the time, and we often want different things, but we have never reached a point of impasse, and that’s not because one of us always capitulates to the other or because we alternate who ‘gets what they want’. When it comes to ‘working’ on your marriage, we’ve invested our time and energy into sharing a heart and a mind. (I suspect, by the way, that this pursuit of unity is the key to avoiding the impasse in the first place.)
When we’d only been married 3 or 4 years a friend made fun of us, saying we took the ‘one flesh’ thing too far because we enjoyed studying, living, and doing ministry together. He said he needed a break from his wife; didn’t we need that too? Of course, we also had our own interests and ministry spheres, but a lot of life was shared and we felt that to be a really special period of life. I suspect we’ll look back on our first three years in Tanzania in much the same way, because life, work and parenting were much more flexible than we expect them to be in the next few years.
I don’t want to contribute to the myth that marriage doesn’t require work, nor to invalidate those who have had to struggle to build a healthy marriage. Maybe we have just had a really really extended honeymoon period and that hardship between us is still to come, but as I reflect on the last 10 years, my sense is that while both of us have grown and changed in that time, it’s been more about expanding who we are than being limited.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.