Celebrating marriage — including the dark parts

“Marriage is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

I was sitting in Eugene Peterson’s class on Ephesians at Regent College when he said those words. He didn’t elaborate and I think I missed the rest of the lecture, stunned by the words I’d heard from the most deeply spiritual man I’d ever met.

I was a half-year into my marriage and finding it more difficult than I’d imagined. The honeymoon year wasn’t feeling nearly as sweet as I’d been led to believe. And now the man I looked up to most was telling me that he was in the same boat I was in. The relief was instantaneous.

Fast forward two years. I was now Eugene’s teaching assistant and had plenty of his time and attention. So, I referred to this cherished quote.

He nodded and said, “I’m a pretty selfish person.”

That was it. Nothing more. Not a word about his wife, who is just as out-spoken and fiery as mine. Just self-accusation.

For two years, I had held on to Eugene’s words, thinking, “If Eugene can handle living with such a hard woman, then so can I. By God’s grace, of course.”

Now, everything was flipped upside down.

If the hardest thing about his marriage was his own selfishness, then the hardest thing about my marriage must be my … Wait a minute!

I didn’t want to admit it, but he was right. Not just about himself, but about me. I am a desperately selfish person. And that selfishness is at the root of everything that makes marriage hard.

And I credit those two quotes for making my marriage into the beautiful-if-not-perfect relationship it is today. Being honest about the difficulties my own selfishness brings to my marriage enables me to stop pointing the finger, stop being defensive, stop looking down on my wife in her failures, and stop turning away in self-pity. Really. It’s the key to getting out of the relationship-killing mode. (See How to kill a relationship in four easy steps.) And that means getting into relationship-saving, relationship-expanding mode. It means getting out of self and into love.

When I see my own selfishness at play, I become far more forgiving of my wife’s selfishness, which amazingly makes us both less selfish.

So, as I celebrate 22 years of marriage to my great wife, I’m celebrating all of the playing and laughing and child-making and friend-making and the other adventuring we’ve done. But I’m also celebrating the crucible of the conflicts and pains that we’ve gone through and been refined by.

If our marriage is a painting, we have not rejected the darker shades, but have used them to make the brighter ones stand out with that much more depth. Because really, my love, I believe we’re working on a masterpiece. And good art is worth the work.

Simply put, I love you.