by Jan Johnson
As the clock struck midnight, all the couples at the New Year’s Eve party kissed, except Greg and me. Finally, my friend said, “Come on, Greg, give your wife a kiss.” So Greg gave me a token peck. I trembled at this first physical contact in years but I tried to act as if it were nothing. After all, it was nothing but a socially conventional behavior forced by circumstances.
Three years before, my husband Greg told me that he hated me and planned to leave. I sat quietly as he listed for me the offenses I had committed. At one point, he produced a list of ten criticisms I’d launched on him within one hour before work one morning. I couldn’t defend myself. He was right.
I asked Greg to forgive me and I worked very hard to change. I read self-help books, held in my anger till my eyes crossed, and finally landed in a support group. There I talked about the rage that had grown within me since childhood and I became accountable for my critical behavior. I spent hours crying out to God, asking Him to help me change.
During the next two years, I changed dramatically. Greg admitted as much and consented to see a counselor. It was there he said, “I no longer hate her. Now I feel absolutely nothing.” After working with us for a while, the counselor said, “I can’t do anything else for you two until Greg decides he wants to reawaken his feelings.”
“I haven’t decided that,” Greg replied.
I felt even more alone. I could imagine how I looked from miles out in the atmosphere: one person completely alone casting a long shadow behind myself. It was just God and me now. I berated myself; I cried many times a day; I stared at oncoming trains at railroad crossings and imagined pulling out in front of the engine.
Greg didn’t have the energy to leave, he said. He thought I would, but I couldn’t because I wanted to stand before God on judgment day with my marriage intact. Part of that was a desire to obey God and another part was pride. I felt like such a second-class Christian for having a dead marriage.
I also wanted to save my kids from the pain of divorce. I figured we could fake it until the kids grew up. We no longer argued; we didn’t talk much at all. I also stayed because I loved Greg. I didn’t realize until the day he confronted me what a patient, generous person he was, and I was charmed by him.
My darkest reason for staying was that I feared abandonment. Having someone who didn’t notice me was better than having no one at all. I wasn’t sure I could get up in the morning without someone to lean on, however tenuously. Every time he was late from work, I imagined that he’d taken off for Mexico.
I felt jealous of other marriages in which the couples argued all the time, but still professed their love for each other. We never argued, we never loved. How would I survive a hopeless marriage?
At the beginning of this long waiting room, I read stories about marriages that turned around in an evening, a month or a year. I wanted this to happen to us so every few months I asked Greg if his feelings had returned yet. He felt inadequate, saying, “I’d like to change my feelings but I can’t.”
His words, “I can’t” rang in my ears. I was helpless too. I couldn’t change his mind. I could do nothing but wait. In the meantime, the pain was terrible. What was I going to do about me now that no one loved me?
One by one, I found avenues of God’s love that made Him more real to me than ever before. The songs at the new church we attended spoke of God’s love for a discarded person like me. I wept through the services for months.
My support group demonstrated God’s unconditional love each time I confessed my fierce anger to the group. I looked up expecting to see condemning faces, but instead I saw gentle smiles and nodding heads accepting me and my rage. Their faces became the loving face of God for me so that I muttered Romans 5:3 many times a day: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” I began to believe that God loved me as much on the days I hated myself and the world as He did on the days when I was cheery and sweet.
In solitude, I cried out to God. I walked in a nearby cemetery, screaming out those painful, unexplainable Psalms in which David groaned in the night and drowned his bed with tears. I lay down next to tombstones and grieved for God to come inside me and convince every cell in my body that He loved me. I cried in the shower leaning against the wall tiles, asking God to rescue me from my regret, self-pity and self-hate. I scribbled my own angry, grieving psalms in my journal, saying abominable, hateful things about Greg, and then asking for blessing on this beautiful man I loved. Little by little, I began to believe that God loved me in my ugliest moments and walked with me each minute.
In the safety of these moments, I faced the fact that Greg’s heart might never change. Over and over I surrendered my dreams of reconciliation. With God’s love as the only basis for self-worth, I decided I could face living the rest of my life in a relationship where I was not loved. I could be obedient to God and stay in that marriage with no guarantee that anything would ever improve. Occasionally, I got on my high horse (“I deserve something better!”), but then I gave the marriage back to God again. The changes I had made in surrendering my anger and manipulative ways were helping me in every area of life so that one day I wrote: “I have changed to please you, God, not Greg. Even if he never changes, I’ll still be glad I did.”
As I sensed God’s companionship, I took delight in giving to Greg without trying to change his mind or make him like me again. It was a grand experiment to try to love someone and leave their freedom intact.
In this waiting room of surrender we sat for several years. Some would say they were wasted years, but even marriages that offer little to brag about can be of great value. We helped and respected each other like brother and sister. We loved our children. We reached out to friends and neighbors. My imperfect marriage did not make me a hopeless and unworthy Christian.
Those years of dry desert gave Greg room to work through his feelings so he could learn to enjoy the new person I had become. We eased into reconciliation so slowly that I didn’t know it was happening. Finally, one day on the telephone Greg said, “I love you,” just before he hung up. Stunned, I almost said, “Are you sure?”
My story cannot be reduced to a formula. I never viewed my willingness to wait as a way of earning Greg’s love back. It could have gone the other way. We were both ripe for affairs and that’s what usually happens in these cases.
Only by God’s grace did I understand that I had expected Greg to meet the inner needs only God could meet. Greg couldn’t give me the unrelenting attention I needed; he couldn’t assure me that I was a valuable person; he couldn’t wash away my mistakes. Only God can do those things. In the rawest edges of life, I find the courage to face each day as I believe in my heart that God loves me no matter what.
The process of coming to believe that God really loves us is described in chapters 16 & 17 of Enjoying the Presence of God. The process described in the third paragraph – working through the fear and rage that had grown within me since childhood – is detailed in Healing Hurts that Sabotage the Soul.
© Jan Johnson – For permission to reprint, Click Here