For the last three months, I’ve read and re-read the New Testament, and what sits with me now is that one of Jesus’ most common refrains is “do not be afraid.” For much of this separation, I have choked on those words. How can Jesus invite me not to fear when all of my deepest fears and insecurities came to life before my very eyes? I was not ready for the idol of my marriage to be smashed in the manner that it was. God clearly has not hesitated to allow me to be unspeakably wounded and traumatized. Yet in the midst of my circumstances, He tells me “do not be afraid.” He invites me to trust Him with my needs by laying down my strategies and embracing my pain. I’m fortunate to be able to enjoy rich conversations with my sister and dad. We have a text message group called “book club”, even though we never seem to be able to be in the same book at the same time. Alys sent a poem she came across that has stayed with me:
A Voyage Taken
The compass breaks, the mast is down my soul heeds this: the world is round; the rising heart, the dream and pulse, on a sea-wind carries us.
The birds are dipping under waves, the fish bolt upward on their wings and we, the captain and the crew, suspended over the abyss, hold the wheel and rig with faith as this frail vessel dives beneath.
Good sire, we cry, the waves are high! Good youth, he answers from the sky, beyond the fracture line of land and air your port is near, your home is there.
Michael O’Brien, from Island of the World
As difficult as it is to say it, this separation has been a healthy thing for me. I held my relationship with Jessica in such a way that when it was taken away, I was plunged into depression. I’m invited to face that in a way I have never been able to. Welcoming the diagnosis of depression was an easier thing than I imagined it would be. It really fits where I have been at, and taking an antidepressant has definitely helped keep my lows from being too low. In this separation, I’ve also seen that I have been dangerously close to burning out as a parent. Except for a handful of days, the kids have been sleeping at the house with me these last three months. The combination of their regressing sleep schedules and my insomnia has been a recipe for disaster. My employer has been immensely supportive, but I’ve seen my productivity suffer terribly. Difficulty concentrating, daytime fatigue, and a truly awful winter are all thrown on top of feeling like I’m drowning. Snow days, sickness, filling in childcare gaps, broken pipes, all the curveballs that come with three kids 5 and under, and being confined to the house in the evenings have really worn me down as a father. I’m typing this with a black eye, a swollen quad, and I’m still nursing a slight compression fracture in my lower back, all from basketball. I am seeing an invitation for me to find more respite as a parent, to receive rest, and rediscover who I am. I feel like I might be surprised by who I find.
It will take a long time to fully explore my damage from feeling discarded, but that isn’t so loud anymore. There’s more going on than how it appears; unseen battles that happen within a misunderstood war. The supports surrounding me have helped me see truth more clearly, and I have more perspective as I hold my circumstances at arm’s length. God wants to heal my pain and to do that I have to stop thrashing and welcome what He has for me. I’m also seeing that as He heals my pain, He has work He is asking me to do. He wants me to move towards the next loving thing I see. To follow the law of love moment by moment. To have compassion when He prompts me and also to have firm boundaries and advocate for truth in love. That honestly requires all the strength I can muster but has unexpectedly brought refreshing peace in the midst of the turmoil.
Right now love has looked like moving towards a 50-50 schedule. To be honest, I was ready to go all in on a custody battle and fight tooth and nail for primary residential status, but I was able to see an invitation to release that. My feelings are still conflicted, but it was absolutely clear that I needed to lay down that fight. I worry about the kids’ emotional well-being and their wounds but trust that God will take care of their hearts. I worry about the child support that would come with a 50-50 arrangement but trust that God will meet my needs and has a plan for where I will live. I bristle over not being seen in the burden I’ve carried with the kids care but know that He wants to give me more rest. I desperately want the kids to be with their mom, for their sake and for hers. It is a severe gift to be a parent, and who am I to take that away from anyone who asks for it?
I feel called to invite reconciliation because I have such high regard for the covenant Jessica and I made together. I feel compassion for her and have a vision of presenting her at the end of our lives closer to who God designed her to be. I was the man chosen for that, and it wasn’t a mistake. I see how God has equipped me to be His tool in her life, and think there is a path forward for us, together.
It might seem strange, but I am also making peace with the fact that it is looking like redemption will not happen. The path thus far certainly doesn’t seem to be leading there. The difference is that I see now that a divorce would not be the end of me. I trust that I would be cared for and that my needs would be met down that road just the same.
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.
As my separation with Jess continues, I have noticed myself seeking solitude more than I would have expected. I need to talk sometimes, but there has been something savory about being alone lately. I have more room to think, feel, and just be. It may look like a personal solitude or a type of solitude that includes the kids. There may be lots of help available with them, but as their father, I want to strengthen the muscle of caring for them. That is my sacred task, and I want to enter it as consistently as I can. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve sought respite, but there is something in me that wants to be able to walk my own path without shying away from the hard parts of it.
I seem to think more clearly when I am doing something with my hands. A perfect match for me in my desire for space in this time has been to take on a serious woodworking project. It’s something I can do while the kids are sleeping. I can think, feel, expend restless energy, and learn. The end result will be a butcher-block style desk with many species of hardwoods, the most difficult project I’ve taken on. I’m excited about it. Parts of the process have been tedious and time-consuming, but it’s also been rewarding. Many of the steps were done in my garage, with the tools I have. In order to achieve the final result I envision, I sought out the expertise and machinery of a very experienced woodworker to help me finish the project out. What a joy it has been to spend time in his immaculate shop and learn from his many years of experience! He’s so gracious.
I’ve been re-reading “The Highlander’s Last Song” by George MacDonald, and am once again deeply impacted by it. For those that don’t know him, MacDonald was an inspiration to many great thinkers and has been looked upon as the father of the Inklings, an informal literary group at Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were the core organizers of the group, and it included others like Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. Lewis went so far as to call MacDonald his spiritual “master”. In this novel, MacDonald created two characters, Alister and his brother Ian, who have truly shaped my view of masculinity. How timely it was for me to pick up this book again! The things in it press hard on uncomfortable places. These are some of the things I’m chewing on lately.
That I am not a free man as long as my world can be shattered by a change in circumstance. God can and does shatter us in order to free us. My world has been and continues to feel like it is crumbling. How joyous it would be to be free of that!
That having is an illusion in regard to material things. With the possibility of divorce at hand, it shakes me to the core to think about losing the financial stability I have been fighting for. God gave me all the money and possessions I have and may see it fit to take any part of that away. It is a mistake to think that money is a force and not a mere tool.
That in all of this there is a gift for me to find that I could not have received otherwise. Through being physically separated from Jess, there has been an opportunity for my unhealthy relational patterns to begin to loosen their hold on me. What a severe gift.
That I need not spend my strength on imagined outcomes or scenarios. The strength I have is for taking the step that is right in front of me. What a humbling thing it is to notice how often I try to look ahead and influence what I see there!
That in many things God is asking me not to know and to be content with that.
That I owe my pride nothing. Even if I am in the right, I have a right to yield it to Christ. It has felt like things have only gotten harder, and that God is demanding more and more of me. It has made me all the more aware of my shortcomings and dependent on Him.
My heart can swing dark some days, but I am starting to see more clearly that I need not be afraid of any path forward so long as I cling to trying to do right. If you are a praying person, please pray that I might let go of my anger so that it doesn’t rule me! And that my grief pours out of me as sorrow rather than rage! Maybe even that I might wholeheartedly and joyously say, “Thy Will be done!”
In my last post, I put words to an energy inside me that I was just starting to uncover. A deep-seated pride that causes me to take up the reins of my life and attempt to steer myself clear of pain, fear, and unfulfilled longing. Oftentimes this self-reliance looks like strategizing, positioning myself, and being unwilling to grieve. It is an attempt to escape my crushing insecurities, be seen by others, and dull my pain. It robs God of working in my life and the lives of others.
My strategies are tools I designed to avoid sitting in the agony of my pain. They keep me from experiencing God’s healing and building a genuine trust in Him. Naming that has been a huge breakthrough for me, but the real work is not in the naming, but in living with that knowledge afterward.
The opportunities to see that energy at work in my life have been countless. It is with me constantly. Paul talks about the law revealing covetousness to him in Romans 7:7-8. After it is named he immediately sees how rampant it is in his life. Do you want to know how many times I rehearsed for the first counseling appointment my wife and I had with a new clinician? Too many to count. I thought about how I want to come across in the session and the things I wanted to say. I thought about what the counselor might see and how I might position myself in the conversation. I would think along these lines when I felt fear or pain and have started to see these moments for what they are. Control. I have begun to simply say, “God, there it is again. Right now I don’t trust that you are working and see that I am trying to take control. That’s why I’m doing this right now.” This is one small example. My strategies come into play most during even the smallest interactions with Jess. A word choice, a tone, or a mood that I create.
The first few days of seeing this were excruciating because of how tightly my hope for my marriage was wrapped up in my strategies. As I began to lay down my methods for controlling my world instead of clutching at them, I was at the same moment feeling my hope die. The only thing I could do was writhe in agony and cry out. These were the most hopeless few days of my life, and I wept often. Releasing my strategies by naming them continues to be terrifying. It means I am left with the very feeling I was trying to escape from, hopelessness.
It was in that place of hopelessness that the Lord stirred my heart in an unmistakable way, something that caught me totally off guard. Strangely enough, I felt stirred in a way that doesn’t intersect with the way I see reality moving right now. But that’s okay. Instead of setting it up as a new idol I want to continue to acknowledge it and hold it loosely.
It’s also worth sharing that staying with my pain sometimes brings out anger and frustration towards God. At times I’ve pointed my finger at Him and accused Him of being cruel. It’s strange to admit that but He is big enough to handle it. That’s why He is God and I am not.
If a crisis goes on for long enough, it ceases to be a crisis and weaves its way into a new normal. There has been a weightiness to my new normal, and its heaviness can drain my strength without warning. Pain or shock can hit me out of nowhere and totally deflate me, even when my spirits seem up. That heaviness will need to be emptied with time, bravery, and by resisting the urge to numb my pain. I feel grief over things like long-term plans, preparing meals for four instead of five, navigating the holidays, and answering innocent questions from my five-year-old. I desire to protect the sacredness of the family unit that is now the kids and I. There is the grief of not feeling whole right now, but I still love creating for my people. For Christmas, we ate crab, snuggled in for a Christmas movie, and piled into the truck to look at Christmas lights. A dull pain has underlined everything, rising to the surface at times. It was hard to find the easy enjoyment of watching the kids open their stockings and gifts this year. It’s so sad to feel like a piece of me is missing. There is a depth to this pain that goes far beyond the visible gashes of the last few weeks.
It’s astounding, but during this separation, I have caught glimpses of a strength that seems to be forming in me. At times I hear its quietness even over the noise of my circumstances. “Maybe I will make it through this.” “Somehow this might be used for my good.” I’m seeing a stronger person peek through now and then, and it feels good. I’ve had a chance to be more in touch with what I want, and have seen more directness in the way I communicate. I’ve surprised myself by pushing conversations well past where I would have felt comfortable in the past, advocating for things I feel strongly about. I know more what I am about, and what I need to do to honor that. At times I’ve felt growing curiosity, surges in creativity, clearer long-term vision, and more intentional movement towards others. Somehow doing laundry has been less tedious, and the kids’ bedtime routine has felt more sacred. This energy ebbs and flows as I battle to sit in my circumstances and not scramble to change them. As I consistently wake up earlier than I ever have to meet with Jesus daily; to be fed by the Bread of Life rather than my own appetites and idols. I just read this tonight in one of my favorite books by George MacDonald. It resonated with me.
But who can tell what a nature may prove to be after feeding on good food for a while? The queen bee is only a better fed working bee. Who can tell what a soul may become when it has been plowed with the plow of suffering, when the rains of sorrow, the frosts of pain, and the winds of poverty have moistened and swelled and dried its fallow clods?
I will continue to try to stay with my pain, accept new circumstances, and follow the promptings of the growing strength inside me. I’ll also need to keep taking things one day at a time, allowing myself time to stand up after losing my feet. It happens often.
My first three blog posts came out of me quickly and surprisingly. It caught me off guard how readily the words came out, as if they had been waiting there for a long time. It has been therapeutic to identify what I’ve been experiencing and helpful to dig deeper. I named my story, shared about my last few weeks, and finally explored what had come to light about myself. Where I sit now feels messy and uncomfortable, and everything in me grates against that. I never thought I would be navigating a separation with my wife, and am in many ways still trying to regain my footing. The landmarks in my life have rearranged themselves and I’m trying to leave behind the broken compass I’ve trusted for so long.
I am in the first stages of fighting something new. It was a huge step to identify the unhealthy ways I held my marriage, but living out something better is another story altogether. It’s something I need to sit in and experience. I have trained myself to think in a particular way for so long that I can’t trust my instincts right now. I see I need boundaries and space from my relationship with Jess. It is going to be a painfully slow process to break myself of the notion that the only way I will be ok is if I have somehow won her love, respect, or admiration.
This week I’ve needed to guard myself vigorously and begin to allow the damage I’ve sustained to rise to the surface. I’ve needed quiet moments and patience with myself. I’ve needed to put scary words to my wounds and start to grieve that for what it is. Those things are hard in the midst of a busy life with three kids and a million distractions. But I found myself less interested in numbing the pain today and more interested in seeking a quiet place to sit and feel. I want to notice what is going inside myself and not be enslaved to it. I want to push in instead of leaning out.
There is a massive knot to untie inside me and so many emotions. So far the path is laborious, obscure, and full of false steps. I’ve fought immensely with anger and have needed to take life hour by hour, moment by moment. My time with the Lord in the mornings feels like a necessity in a way that it never has before. I need help to make it through the day and absolutely cannot think about tomorrow. It feels like a great effort to keep in touch with what honors my heart right now, to defend my boundaries, and to protect myself from more blows. I notice how tempted I am to betray myself. It’s shocking to see how willing I am to swallow poison in order to feel safe. I’ve taught myself to disregard my pain and immediately pursue any softness I feel towards Jess because I’ve always been convinced that softness is a dependable path back to security. I’m uncovering how I’ve laid down my plans, given up dreams, changed directions, taken on burdens, and swallowed my words in order to keep the boat from rocking. I was and still am willing to give up my soul at the drop of a hat. It’ll be a long process, but I’m finally starting to move out in a better direction.
I also see that I strategize. About everything. I feel safest when I can wrap my head around my circumstances, see a clear path forward, or cling to something solid. I do NOT do well sitting and simply existing in discomfort, fear, or pain. It sends me into a spin and makes me frantic. When my insecurities rise up, when my longings aren’t met, or when pain knocks the wind out of me, I begin to strategize to avoid pain. This is so new that I am still learning to recognize when I do it. There’s a feeling I’m starting to associate with it that has come over me especially strongly during this separation as I feel lonely or insecure. A desire for control. It’s the feeling of wanting to get my fingers into my situation and meddle with it. To fix it, run from it, or make it quieter.
I’m seeing now that this is ultimately self-reliance and an unwillingness to grieve. It has no other name than pride. A deep-seated, ugly pride that was hard for me to pin down or even identify. I was never ready to see it until now. All this time I have been invited by God to sit in my pain and allow him the opportunity to heal it, but I have never let him. Deep down I’ve thought I’ve known better than Him how to meet my longings, avoid pain, deliver truth, and make my life work.
My latest counseling session was different in the sense that I was ready to hear this for the first time. To trace it back through months and years and name it for what it is. It was quite a humbling thing, but I’m grateful for it. These words were given to me, and they hit as near the mark as possible. They are words from Henri J. M. Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love (emphasis mine):
Stay with Your Pain
When you experience the deep pain of loneliness, it is understandable that your thoughts go out to the person who was able to take that loneliness away, even if only for a moment. When, underneath all the praise and acclaim, you feel a huge absence that makes everything look useless, your heart wants only one thing –to be with the person who once was able to dispel these frightful emotions. But it is the absence itself, the emptiness within you, that you have to be willing to experience, not the one who could temporarily take it away.
It is not easy to stay in your loneliness. The temptation to nurse your pain or to escape into fantasies about people who will take it away. But when you acknowledge your loneliness in a safe, contained place, you make your pain available for God’s healing.
God does not want your loneliness; God wants to touch you in a way that permanently fulfills your deepest need. It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there. You have to own your loneliness and trust that it will not always be there. The pain you suffer now is meant to put you in touch with the place where you most need healing, your very heart. The person who was able to touch that place has revealed to you your pearl of great price.
It is understandable that everything you did, are doing, or plan to do seems completely meaningless compared with that pearl. That pearl is the experience of being fully loved. When you experience deep loneliness, you are willing to give up everything in exchange for healing. But no human being can heal that pain. Still, people will be sent to you to mediate God’s healing, and they will be able to offer you the deep sense of belonging that you desire and that gives meaning to all you do.
Dare to stay in your pain, and trust in God’s promise to you.
Sitting right here feels overwhelming and unsustainable, but I am gaining confidence that God has a bigger purpose in this separation. In my fragility, I have needed to hear his truths more than ever. He wants to build me up and strengthen me through during this time. I took comfort in Ephesians 4:14-15:
So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.
My life has been intense lately, and my world has felt like it is crumbling under my feet. After writing my last post, I felt a bit of unexpected peace that caught me totally off guard. I hadn’t asked for that or even seen my need for it, but it’s clear I desperately needed peace in the midst of this turmoil.
Under the weight of this suffocating pain, it has amazed me to find windows opened into my soul that I have been invited to look into. It’s a ripe time for me to take these invitations and notice things about myself; I wasn’t able to see them when I thought life was going well. The things that have been brought to light are hard pills to swallow, but also strangely liberating.
I saw that my slowness to move on Jess’s behalf deeply wounded her, and left her alone in many ways. I’ve seen false curiosity and mechanical movements towards her that I had never owned. I was also invited to see how I treat her and my kids, and that I easily slip into a tone of harshness with them. I’ve felt a movement in myself to see these things, confess them, and allow a shift to start to take place. The shift won’t be immediate, but I can’t ignore what’s been brought to light.
By far the biggest thing that I have been invited to see and name inside myself has to do with my style of relating to Jess. This is what I wrote in my last post:
I’ve been made to face that one of my deepest fears was Jess leaving me. All of my patterns of performing were an effort to control my marriage in a way that made me feel safe. Well now that very thing I feared is coming to pass, and God is asking me to sit in it.
I was untying that knot a little more in a counseling session this week and was invited to explore more deeply what is going on there. We started stumbling upon some words for it. When people feel pain in relationships, we often move toward engaging in relational battle or retreating into self-preservation. Fight or flight.
My Fight Response
For me, the fight response would look like unleashing all of my built up frustration and demanding my voice be heard and honored. I might take self-centered action, settle into a pride-filled posture, or directly judge and condemn Jess. These things never achieved my goal of having my pain heard, acknowledged, and healed. For the type of person I am, the fight response isn’t my top choice but sometimes comes out in desperation or frustration. Jess is a fierce woman, and often she would meet me guns blazing. She’s a mental health professional, and therefore has a gift for seeing other people’s junk. Even though I would try to defend myself, ultimately I would never have much to stand on because what she saw in me was often true. It was tough to make any headway in this arena and I longed to feel heard.
My Flight Response
More and more I resorted to flight responses in my relationship with Jess. For me fleeing might look like shutting down, going silent, or taking retaliatory jabs. I might try to manipulate situations to make her feel shame, or harbor resentment. I became good at being the victim or martyr, and acting in self-protective ways. I would still judge her, just more quietly.
I talked about it a little bit in my first blog post, but one response that developed into a full-fledged relational strategy for me was to become an anchor in my marriage and for our family. I chose that path because it lent itself to my strengths, it looked good on the outside, and it is what I thought Jess needed me to be. I lost confidence that I was enough for her, and tried to be the self-sacrificing husband and father who could handle anything. I did this because I was convinced that I could earn her respect and therefore feel secure. My goal became to keep her happy because I no longer had hope that she wanted me for simply being me.
I desperately wanted to be loved and respected just for being Rand. Remember that insecure little boy? He yearned to be valued and chosen by his wife. I dared to hope that the type of father I was would stir Jess’s heart towards me. That my growth in confidence would be seen by her. Naming this longing in my soul and seeing the patterns I used to try to meet it has sent shockwaves through my world. I see my strategies rise to the surface and influence me constantly. It is ingrained in my thinking and dominates how I view my world.
I noticed it this week when dismantling a queen bed that she is going to bring to her apartment. I planned to take the bed apart and move the pieces into the garage. After which I would have been willing to haul them over to her apartment for her. But it was so sad to be taking apart the bed. It struck me like a lightning bolt that I was still trying to win her over. I wanted to be seen in my labor and respected for doing such a kind thing. I had to set down my drill and grieve what I was doing to my heart.
It also showed itself in the way I worded a text message to her yesterday. I had something I needed to say but found myself trying to back off my wording subtly to make it less direct. I feared I would push her away if I wasn’t careful.
When life is crazy with the kids, guess who thinks he can save the day and earn his wife’s admiration. This guy. If I take care of this child puking in the middle of the night, I think I can earn some favor with Jess. Something unexpected came up for this evening? You enjoy yourself, I’ve got things handled. Maybe she’ll notice my sacrifice and be drawn towards me. I’ve got supper ready. Will you be impressed? Laundry, check. Dishes, check. Date night, there’s a big opportunity to win her over. Maybe I can woo her by taking her on a trip or getting her a gift. Perhaps she’ll be drawn toward me if I start working out with her. Yoga is important to her so I’ll do it too. Maybe she’ll notice me there. If I improve my wardrobe I bet she’ll be impressed. I’ll handle bedtime. Please see me.
There are years of our marriage I could examine like this. It leaves me speechless. This heartbreaking pattern of neglecting my own heart and trying to control my marriage lies hidden amidst some of my greatest gifts. I love to serve others and provide room for them to be themselves. It’s a strength of mine that I’m seeing the more sinister side of.
How many of even my smallest decisions were tainted by this lens? Too many to count. It is still rampant in my life. It is manipulative and insincere and has ultimately left me parched in my marriage. Do you see what I did to myself? I’m still recognizing it. I developed a pattern of betraying myself and not honoring my own heart all while trying to feel secure in my marriage. I fortified my emotional prison by working harder and harder. It was and still is effortless to blame Jess for our issues, and natural for me to feel self-righteous and calloused. I was convinced that each sacrificial action and decision was bringing Jess closer to me, but it was often adding to the growing wall between us.
That wall seems so high now. How do I make sense of it? How do I engage with it? I don’t want it there but I can’t really go there right now. I do see that I can stop adding to it. I can listen for what my suppressed heart has to say and try to trust it. That’s a scary thing, but I can’t unsee what I have seen through these windows.
I’ve found out a bit of my story this year, and have seen in my personal relationships that I seem want to share it. It’s the kind of story that will be at the root of my future stories, a story whose discovery thrust a marker into my life and clearly defines a “before” and “after”. The ripples will spread from here on.
I grew up in a wonderfully loving home, with tender parents who owned their shortcomings and gave unconditionally. They loved with their actions and modeled humility. This jumps out to me because as a parent I know how hard it is to do. Oftentimes the last thing I want to do is confess my sin to my children. Kids can be demanding, so I feel justified in my actions.
“Eloise, it was wrong of me to make you feel bad about being late for dance. Will you forgive me?”
“Reid, I was wrong to yell at you for accidentally spilling your milk. Spills happen. Will you forgive me?”
Even when their sin is mixed up in it, I feel it is important to separate out my part and own it in front of them. I hope it models for them how to do that in their own relationships. I received this as a child and was treated gently. What a mercy.
I was a quiet kid who was very introspective. I took the longest time picking out a toy at the toy store, not wanting to make the wrong choice. I loved to tinker, build, create, and get lost in things. I could spend hours with legos or some old electric motors and tape. I read books, played sports, and competed with my siblings in the safety of our home environment. My twin brother Bryn was my most consistent companion (and adversary at times). We played and fought and did nearly everything together. He was naturally more outgoing, leading with his face and moving toward what he wanted. And I was right there to join in.
Looking back I see that my journey has its origins here. I was naturally sensitive and remember feeling fearful socially. I was seen as smart and nice but was ultimately insecure about my ability to move powerfully, charm others, and stand my ground. Even though I was physically a late bloomer (still working on facial hair at 28), I was probably the most confident with basketball and soccer. Because of my length, I remember knowing that I could jump high and hit three-pointers. I also remember knowing that I was fast enough or in the right position to take the soccer ball away from someone. I had one relationship in high school, but am embarrassed about how badly I lacked confidence in it. It was a short one. I emerged out of childhood with a friendly smile, an agreeable personality, but also with deep insecurities.
Some photos of me. Ages 5, 13, 15, and 17.
Seeing these photos can bring me to tears because of these things. I see a little boy struggling with confidence and unsure whether or not he could actually move in the world. He was smart, creative, and happy. He won “Most Outstanding Senior Boy”. He had academic scholarships. He felt loved and safe but also harbored fear.
In college, I branched out a little but was never very far out of my comfort zone. My brother and I were roommates, but I remember deviating from my him for one of the first times in my life. I planned to spend the summer after our freshman year in a different place than he did. I was going to go to San Diego for a mission trip. I was excited but also nervous. I didn’t have that relational safety that I was used to. But it went well. I made some deep relationships and had a dark-horse run to come out as the “Most-Eligible Bachelor”, which was a semi-joking, jocular discussion amongst the guys all summer. It definitely boosted my confidence, and I came back riding that high.
I even moved towards a girl I had a crush on. I saw her as exciting, interesting, and comfortable with herself. I was so drawn to her and loved being around her. I had the feeling that anything could happen because she loved spontaneity and made things happen. She was deeply compassionate, and I could see that she was going to mark the world. I fell in love. This girl was curious about me and thought I was “mysterious”. I don’t know how but she fell in love with me too.
Jess and I were married before our senior year, and a whole new journey began. It’s a disservice to summarize it, but hopefully, I can draw out some patterns. I had so much growing up to do. We immediately felt our differences and the pain that came with that. We sat down with our counselor to try to make sense of it. I saw anything new or exciting as requiring monumental effort because I lacked the confidence to rock the boat. Anything new was inherently scary. I was fearful that I would utterly fail at providing financially. My focus was to avoid getting chewed up and spit out by life. These things were painful for Jess and she would lash out at me. I felt unseen in my fear and exposed in my weaknesses. The pain was blinding and confusing.
I longed for emotional safety, feeling sure that if I felt loved by Jess I could start to grow in confidence and move more powerfully. I longed for security but defended myself with arrogance. My wife was trying to tell me what she needed but I was unwilling to hear because of the way it was delivered, in an angry and vindictive way. I knew what healthy looked like and she wasn’t loving me. I had the moral high ground and wasn’t open to listening unless something was seriously falling apart.
To this day we are still working to untie this knot, but I deeply wounded my wife. I struggled to move and create on her behalf. She was forced to make change without a strong person by her side, and also against all odds. I was hurt by her, yes, but I wouldn’t own how I was damaging her. She started walking her own journey, which she shares a lot about.
I also need to come to terms that my own wounds started here. I felt assaulted and hated for my weaknesses, where I longed to feel compassion. It was a huge effort for me to move in the world, but I was trying. I needed to be seen in that and loved in the midst of it. Instead, I felt exposed, exploited, and kicked.
It complicated things that we started having children, too. Jess assumed the role of stay-at-home mom, a painful role that did not match her. I was agonizingly slow to listen to her pleas for change and fell into the pattern of resisting movement until it couldn’t be avoided anymore. She was pursuing higher levels of education, discovering her story, and trying to honor who she was. Finally, after our third child, we made a change and found childcare. Working with nannies was scary and hard, and I wish I would have seen that God was inviting me to rise up to that for our marriage. But I was learning to fix these things not out of a place of confident compassion for Jess. My real motivation was to continue to feel secure in my marriage. It was survival. That little boy who lacked confidence and was fearful of what others might do to him was figuring out how to stay safe.
Being introspective, it came naturally to me to develop strategies to find security in my marriage. I tried to hide behind certain strengths. It took me a while to build confidence with parenting in the first place, but after facing it for long enough I found that I felt equipped to provide emotional security for the kids. Spontaneity was still hard and scary for me, but it was worth it to fight to be present in our day to day grind.
That movement continued for me, and I started to come into the role that I saw modeled to me as a child. I wanted to provide a safe environment for the kids to prosper in. I was also building confidence in my career and saw some success made through dogged determination and an eagerness to learn. It felt rewarding, and my old fear of the world quieted a little bit. That was a huge movement of growth for me, though I didn’t see it at the time. I also see those successes now as a gracious mercy. It was deeply encouraging to take a swing at life and make solid contact. I have a place in this world! Home life was a little different. Jess was pursuing things that had been shut down in her life for so long. She was coming alive, and I was trying to support her through shouldering more at home. She was trying different fitness classes, pursuing becoming a Yoga instructor, and carving out her place in the mental health field. I took on more responsibility with the kids, but it was exhausting work and I also started building resentment. I longed for a teammate but felt like I needed to become a solid rock for my family.
By this point, I had the victim role down pretty well. I felt used and stepped on in my marriage, which was made even more painful when I reflected on the security I had felt at home growing up. I still longed for that and tried to communicate that something was amiss. Unfortunately, the main tool I tried to communicate with was shame. Jess could walk in the door and sense my frustration. She could hear it in my voice when she called me to tell me she had made plans and that I needed to watch the kids. My mood didn’t always line up with my words. I can see now that I was performing to maintain peace.
This part of the journey isn’t completely black and white, and that’s a beautiful thing. I can sense that a deep love moved inside of me towards my wife at times, too. My motives fluctuated quite a bit and yet my capacity for love grew. The Lord used this time to teach me confidence even without emotional security. I saw I had more patience with the kids, with myself, with Jess. I tried to consistently enter hard things with parenting, with household chores, with cooking. Venturing out of my comfort zone enough times was paying off. Three kids at the doctor’s office? I’ll try it. Swimming lessons, dance practice, and laundry today? We’ll take it moment by moment. Family wedding in California? I’ll plan it, save for it, and we’ll bring three kids five and under on the plane. We’ve moved five times in the seven years and have had half a dozen nannies. There’s been career transitions, mental health challenges, family loss, new vehicles, spontaneous trips, and professional trainings. We’ve been through a lot and pushed our boundaries.
These last two years or so I thought I saw my role in our family more clearly. I was the anchor who endured all emotional jabs and was the king of “Go ahead, I’ve got it covered”. I thought my role was to stretch and grow outside of my comfort zone, to always own how I was wrong and try to fix it. If Jess and I were disconnected or in conflict, I would cover that ground to try to hear her pain, ignoring mine. For me having my pain heard wasn’t as important as being connected again. It wasn’t worth the effort to be heard. All of this made me feel more unseen and fortified my role as a victim in our marriage. I didn’t ask for help and wanted to be able to handle everything the kids needed by myself. I didn’t have very good boundaries and was resentful that I still wasn’t loved or treated very well. I noticed that curiosity towards Jess wasn’t very genuine, which is wounding and has caused her immense pain.
So this summer I started on my journey with a counselor to see these things. One day in the counseling office it became crystal clear that I was ultimately performing in life and in my marriage, and that it was killing me. I was seeking security and trying to control how Jess felt about me, all in an effort to feel loved, respected, and safe. It resonated so strongly because I was so completely terrified to lay down those strategies and release my perceived control. To trust the work God has done Jess’s life and let her move toward me. Absolutely terrifying.
Up until that point, I hadn’t seen any sign that my needs would be met in my marriage without me orchestrating it. Coming out of that place has been really hard. I still struggle with that. How do I break deep-seated patterns that were put there subconsciously to get my longings met? The answer is very slowly and painfully. I soon found that it was easier to use my resentment to defend my fledgling self. It wasn’t as hard to say “no, that doesn’t work for me” when I’m seething inside. This was some sort of movement, but still destructive. And that’s where I’m at now. Trying to get to know myself, keep in touch with what I need, and work up the courage to ask for it. Harder still is trying to stop being a victim. I’m good at being flexible but need to find the line where I am betraying myself.
All I can do is share what I’m trying to move toward, and own it when I lash out.
I want to offer my pain in an open-handed way, gently and without shaming those around me. My wife, my kids.
I want to trust how God is working in my wife’s life and stay on my own yoga mat.
I want to be in touch with my needs and ask for space to meet them.
I want to ask for help and be more inconvenient.
I want to align with my wife and follow the Spirit’s promptings towards her.
I want to move powerfully for my family if it matches me. But be gentle if it doesn’t.
I want to be vulnerable and lay down my pride. I need support.