This separation has been a ripe time for me to explore myself and has pulled back the curtain on many things in my heart. I’m starting to build a more lasting type of strength, and catch glimpses of God’s mercy in this time. On the better days, I feel closer to being able to say that this has been a good thing, crucial for my growth. On harder days, making it through the day feels like a victory.
There is a little plant that ended up at the house at the beginning of this separation. It might have been an extra one that Jess didn’t have a place for, I’m not sure. It sat on the table looking ok if not a little puny. But within a day or two, it had absolutely no leaves. Every single one lay on the table. Whether they fell off because of the change in environment or because our two year old ripped them off I can’t be sure. Either way, the plant was just a bleak and pitiful stem. I considered throwing it out, but instead, I tried watering it. I continued to water it and care for it in the days and weeks that followed. I made sure to keep the soil moist, and somewhere along the line it sprouted tiny leaves. It now sits in a sunnier spot, receives the water it needs, and continues to grow. Hopefully, that continues. I identify with this plant. I’ve felt like my leaves were stripped away and that I have been parched. Only with water and sun have I been able to see new growth. I am clinging to God’s word daily, supported by strength no my own, and with so much help am digging into what he has to show me about myself.
I am seeing more clearly a deep-seated pattern in myself. I desperately want to feel put together and make sure my needs are met. I become deeply uncomfortable if I cannot see where something leads, doing my best to avoid pain and keep the boat from rocking. I calculate. I use all the tools at my disposal to build for myself a crutch of control to help me feel ok through life. I choose to trust my strategies instead of turning to God and sitting in my fear of what will happen. I have many opportunities to grapple with that daily and see that it stirs up anxiety, grief, frustration, hopelessness. A good way to talk myself down from it is to remember that I am only called to take the step right in front of me and that I haven’t been given grace and strength for tomorrow yet. It takes nearly all my energy to turn off that noise and get in touch with where I am and what I need. It’s also hard to then move out of that.
A relational way I calculate is through people-pleasing, or codependency. I try to control my world by manipulating the way people feel. I say people, but I am uncovering how my main victim was and continues to be Jess. In my marriage, I ran everything through a Jess-ometer. The Jess-ometer is a name I made up for the thing that tells me how I think she will respond to the things I do, the things I say, and the mood I create. She receives no invitations from me when the Jess-ometer is running. Instead, I choose to try to read her mind, to make decisions for her, and manipulate her. I try to inspire respect and manage her mood. I’m starting to sit with the damage that has caused. There is no room for her to be a normal human who grows, changes, and needs things. How could I actually love her when I am so busy trying to keep her happy?
As my chief idol, I was so focused on the Jess-ometer that I failed to love my wife. That played itself out in a few ways. I subtly manipulate with my words, actions, and tone. I was and still am constantly tempted to try to win her through softness, large gestures, or movement toward her. Even if I can’t win her I may try to cover lost ground after I feel like I’ve pushed her away. In this separation, I have had to learn to slow down when I feel softness towards her because I often betray myself and see that softness as a chance to prove myself to her. This way of thinking is so ingrained in my manner of relating to her that it often comes out without me noticing it. I’ve struggled with that deeply in recent days and weeks. It comes out in the motive behind a text message or in the mood I create when we interact. I’m grateful for the physical space to be able to slow myself down, question my motives, and grieve my pattern. Again, this still happens daily.
I have also missed opportunities to offer another kind of love to Jess. Not necessarily the fuzzy, feel-good love of me doing things for her. Or of me cherishing her thoughts, ideas, and perspective (none of which I did well). Or creating for her. Those are beautiful expressions of love (when not manipulative), but love isn’t that black-and-white. The love I consistently failed to give to Jess (and still fail at) was asking for my needs to be met. Inviting her to partner with me in hard things. Persistently asking for my longings to be acknowledged. Guarding boundaries. Speaking truth in love. In other words, things that I thought would have made the Jess-ometer low but were actually good things for both of us.
This pattern is even harder for me to fight than manipulating Jess through movement toward her. I am petrified of saying or doing anything that I think will push Jess further away. In a world where I set her up as an idol, I would choose anything over pushing her further away. I would much rather swallow my pain and truth. But when I do it builds resentment and feeds my victim mentality. I’ve built up such a victim mindset that it leaks out all the time. It pervades my relationship with Jess, who to her credit has seen it and called me out on it over the years. I never owned that and even blamed her in it.
The thing that I am seeing is that in being a victim and failing to love her in this way for long enough, many other things suffered. The warm, outward movement of love became more manipulative, less free-flowing, stopped progressing, or even ceased altogether. What a terribly dark pattern. I became a victim and a martyr because in that posture I could try to heap conviction on her. That’s an ugly thing to write and face. But it’s dead true. Oh, how deeply I embraced and still embrace a victim mentality. It’s so hard to shake, but I am trying to shake it.
As much as I want to focus on everything but myself, pray for me as I sit in this bare spot. God means to deal with my sinful heart, and I have been in a perilous place where I can easily play a victim and attempt to manipulate. Before publishing this post, I found that I wanted to confess what I saw to Jess in person, because of how my patterns have damaged her. That felt like an important thing and I’m glad I had the chance to do it. I know of no context other than a separation that I could face the unhealthy ways I held my marriage, which is a mercy. My daily struggle is to sit in my fear and circumstances without trying to control outcomes, to recalibrate the Jess-ometer to a healthy place, and allow for compassion without betraying myself. I am called to work up the courage to do scary things when God asks me to and focus on walking with Him into my sinful heart.