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The Secret of the Successful Marriage?

She was lovely – younger than her years with a glowing complexion, athletic build, and stylish outfit. Her smile was warm and genuine. But she was troubled. I was on staff as the church’s women’s pastor and although I was significantly younger than her and never married, she shared her heart with me. She’d been married a long time. She’d raised a family, been active with her husband in church, and trusted the life they’d built together. Her world was rocked when she discovered he’d betrayed their covenant. Reconciliation was not possible. It was beyond shocking – to her, her children, and the community.

Several years had passed since the divorce and she had done some hard work to heal her torn and battered soul. She had taken the tatters that remained and allowed God to stitch her life into something beautiful. She became a minister to others. A broken healer.

She wanted to know if she might marry again, find that something she’d been missing all her life. She longed for a companion to share her golden years with. As we spoke about it, she said something that has stuck with me ever since. It was one of those nuggets that I wanted seared into my brain. I never want to forget her words.

Her marriage had not been perfect. It had, in fact, been wrought with pain and disappointment. She shared a few painful details, ways he’d hurt her beyond imagination in their younger years. As I heard her tales, I thought about how the person you commit your life to has such power to cause pain, to destroy confidence, to emotionally crush.

I wondered aloud how a person can continue to open themselves up to someone whose insecurities can cause so much burning pain.

She told me she’d shut down. She’d made a decision to maintain some emotional safety while continuing to go through the motions of a life together. Cruel words had driven her into the shadows of their marriage, withdrawing and building walls around her heart.

But that hadn’t kept her safe. She’d dreamed he would notice the distance and pursue her heart; try to make it right. He didn’t. He responded to her retreat by retreating further from her. His distance led to even more distance from her. At the end of their marriage they’d become little more than mildly combative roommates. As an objective outsider I could see that the whole mess was caused by fear.

She quietly choked out the words: “He deserved my withdrawal, but I think I should’ve found a way to forgive him and move past it.”

I was stunned by her humility.

I’ve never forgotten it.

As I move closer to my third year of marriage, I can tell you that even if you marry the nicest, kindest, most giving person in the world – that person will still hurt you. It’s most often unintentional, but when you allow someone that close to your heart, the pressure can become so great that it becomes pain. Rick and I have hurt one another. Even with the best of intentions. Often with eyes wide in shock that the other person reacts in such a way to what we have said or done. And a few times we may have even caused a little pain on purpose.

I can be sensitive and emotional. He can say things that are insensitive. I can be sharp and demanding. He can be naïve and critical. We are far from perfect. There have been times when I’ve battled my emotions, feeling my spirit try to curl up into a tight ball inside, trying to protect the tender places.

Her words have come back to me.

Find a way to move past it. Forgive, forgive, forgive.

Not only forgive, but force the tight ball to uncurl. Go so far as to expose the tender places again, knowing you may feel searing pain again.

Expose them anyway.

I’ve struggled with that concept. What do I do with the pain, Lord? And what do I do if it happens again and again and again? Is there a limit?

God answered me:


Give it to ME. I’m your protector. If you hide your heart in Mine, I will keep your heart safe. I will heal you.

Has God allowed those tender places to be exposed because He needs me to toughen up? Maybe He has things for me to do outside this home and family that I can’t handle if I don’t build some muscle where the soft belly of need currently is.

I don’t know the answer, but I’m trying to figure it out.

I suspect that the most successful marriages are the ones where people decide to stay open, to keep their tender places exposed, to risk the pain. The most successful couples pursue one another when the other draws away. They challenge their fear and intentionally seek out the love they want from their spouse.

Here’s the question that drives the point home for me:

What does curling up inside accomplish anyway?

In my mind I see the lovely woman who lost her dreams and is finding herself again. How many times would she have had to forgive her husband and try again? Possibly hundreds, thousands even.

He may have changed as a result of her example and cherished her more for it.

He may have had an affair anyway.

Even if he had thrown her love away, the end could have been the same. God was waiting ~ either way ~ to stitch her back together again into something exquisitely beautiful.

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