Step Away From Hopeless

Step Away From Hopeless

I slipped into the dark, packed-out room and sank into a chair in the back row. I was at a conference, about to hear from the wife of a successful leader. I was only there in body, not by desire. I had that sense of obligation (since I was young and others had sponsored the fees) and honestly, nowhere else to go. You know, I didn’t really want to hear about her charmed life – to hear ‘how I did it’ victory tales from someone whose life was most certainly far better than mine. The pain of all my disappointments was so real I could feel it in my throat.

My husband Carey and I were almost at our tenth anniversary, and our struggles were deep by then.

My eyes brimmed even before her opening line. I was in no mood to hear from Superwoman. Was I wracked by envy? Bitterness? Cynicism? Honestly, it was all of these, plus a healthy dose of sadness. But there I sat, and braced myself.

What she said was nothing like what I’d imagined. She told us about her inadequacies. She shared her mistaken assumptions and failed starts. She shared that, in the midst of her failures and weaknesses, she’d made some wise choices, too. And in the process of describing how she had moved forward in spite of her many challenges, she gave me a beautiful gift that day. The message I expected would weigh me down lifted me up instead. The hope she gave me was so enduring, I remember it to this day.

If your marriage has become the burden in your life, weighing you down with a heaviness you didn’t sign up for, please know this: I empathize with your heavy feelings and your suspicion of any victory story. Sure, you may think, that’s your story, but slim chance it will ever be mine. When Carey and I were stuck in our own season of marriage despair, I doubted too.

But all these years later, we’re so far from that season it seems like nothing more than a bad dream.

When we were caught up in the downward spiral, I thought that most of our marriage problems were Carey’s fault. I had pinpointed a couple of his weaknesses which I focused on. If only he would pay attention to those faults and work on correcting them, all our marriage problems would disappear. Meanwhile, not then but over the years I came to learn that I was emotionally unprepared for marriage. I thought my own perspective and tendencies were “normal”. I even deluded myself to believe my opinions were the superior ones, something I wouldn’t admit outside the bounds of our marriage. I had a tendency to remain private and was often emotionally unavailable to Carey. I entered our marriage weak at noticing and responding to Carey’s emotions. And, to top it all off, blame and playing the victim were too often my default postures in our conflict. Little wonder we had problems that took considerable time and serious effort to unravel.

Hope for us? Back then, I didn’t have it. But, when Carey and I made our vows, we included these words: “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” This is something King Solomon, a Jewish ruler and sage, wrote millennia ago. According to our shared faith, we were not simply two but three binding our marriage together. When the going was tough, this saying reminded us that when we, representing the two strands of the cord that bound us together, were frayed, we had a third strand to continue connecting us. Jesus held us together when we felt broken. He was and is the light and strength we need when our strands are frayed.

Let me assure you that I don’t assume that you share my faith. Your beliefs and values are up to you, and I welcome and respect you regardless of them. But if you and your spouse are willing to lean into your struggling marriage before you turn your sights elsewhere (or even if one of you has, but is willing to turn back), you don’t need to have warm, fuzzy feelings about your relationship to turn it around. We felt stuck and despairing during our dark years.

I’ve recounted my mistakes and weaknesses above, and that’s only a start. Even though I wasn’t in the emotional space to be motivated by feelings of affection, I’d heard that ‘love is an act of the will.’ ‘Love is a verb.’ ‘Home is where you learn to love.’ I decided to take one step. My one step couldn’t be anything overwhelming, because I had a full life, with work, parenting, community involvement, professional development and so on. My one step couldn’t cost much, because our budget didn’t allow for it. But by taking one step at a time, which eventually included such things such as seeking out and listening to wise counsel, leaning on our close friends, reading about marriage and personal growth, listening to pastors and speakers, meditating and praying, attending professional counselling, gaining wisdom from Jesus’ words, I was slowly but surely changed. Healed. Matured. And our marriage reaped the benefits.

Is there one step you could take to help you grow as a person, which might impact your relationship? Are there untapped sources of wisdom within your reach, that you might benefit from? Here are a couple of ideas: even if you’re not sure what you believe about faith or you’ve decided it’s not for you, countless people over the ages have benefited from the wisdom in the biblical book of Proverbs. It’s free and easily accessible online through YouVersion here. If you’ve never read Jesus’ actual words for yourself, read what he actually said as chronicled by his friend and follower John. If you haven’t read yet about the personal growth tool known as the Enneagram, you can read more about it here. And if you’ve been considering counselling but haven’t done a google search or asked around yet, let me be your cheerleader. Do it today!

I don’t regret a single minute or dollar I spent chasing down my misguided notions and weaknesses that were keeping Carey and I stuck. I only regret that I didn’t start sooner and chase harder. Find your one next step toward personal growth. I promise, your growth will be your own victory story in the making.

2 thoughts on “Step Away From Hopeless”

  1. I appreciate your work and I plan on reading your book. You may address this in the book, and I would like to suggest that in these short articles you include a statement about the “normal” range of struggles for which your approaches and advices are appropriate. Thanks.

  2. Jackie, I sincerely appreciate you raising this!
    I do draw a distinction between couples who are struggling in an unhappy marriage or relationship, versus a harmful one. Here’s an excerpt from the opening of my book:

    ” (You) need to be honest and take appropriate steps when your partner’s words and actions are not just leaving you with unhappiness but are objectively and consistently harmful to you or to your children. If your partner is behaving in ways that are violent or toxic, you need to protect yourself, and you need to reach out for help. Staying under the same roof with him or her may only cause you more harm. While that is a more clear-cut case, for some married people, the line between unhappy and harmful is not as easily defined. I strongly encourage you not to try to figure out the answer to that question on your own in isolation. If you’re not sure, then you need help from a professional therapist or counselor to uncover why your marriage makes you question whether it’s unhappy or actually harmful. At a minimum, talk to your doctor, a therapist, a pastor, or someone wise and objective whom you trust. Give that person full disclosure of the reasons for your concerns and take their advice seriously.
    I know people who needed to leave a marriage that had become toxic and abusive. Here’s the point I’m underlining: in this book, I’m not advocating that you stay in your marriage, at least living under the same roof, while you’re dealing with toxic, violent, or destructive behavior from your spouse. If this is your situation, get professional help to make a safety plan.

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