"Glug, glug glug... uhhh... umpf!" My trusty VW Rabbit coughed and sputtered as I stomped on the gas pedal.
"Oh for crying out loud!" I fumed, "this stupid car always starts when I need it. Why not now? Thanks for nothing, God!" I steamed, retrieving my hastily packed suitcases from the trunk. I marched back into the house, tossed my bags into the kitchen and slammed the door. I'd had it.
Wed in 1983, my first two years of married life were bright and sunny, but storm clouds formed after my husband began law school in 1985. Chris spent every waking moment either studying, in class, studying, at the law library, or studying.
I was asleep by the time he crawled into bed at night, and left for work before he awakened in the morning. We shared an apartment but lived separate, disconnected lives. We would sometimes go a week or more without a sentence between us, both too caught up in our own solo lives and divergent interests to cultivate a meaningful duet.
I soon resented shouldering the Breadwinner role as I put my husband through school. Heaped upon this rancor was the frustration that my primary interests in married life--being a full-time wife and mother-- were playing second fiddle to his career goals and the seemingly endless demands of law school and beyond.
When Chris graduated from law school in 1990, I thought my days of clover were just around the bend. Eagerly looking forward to starting a family and becoming an at-home mom, I never dreamed that Chris' professional pursuits would require another two years of Bar exams and more years of virtually fruitless job searches.
When the babies finally began to arrive eight years into our marriage, I resented having to return to work full-time while Chris was "Mr. Mom." Brimming with unmet emotional needs, I wearied of "putting my life on hold for you," as I put it.
The combined demands of juggling three kids under age seven, financial crunches, lost dreams and misplaced priorities had built a barrier of bitterness between me and my husband.
Our pastor shook his head and all but ushered us into divorce court. "God could intervene with a miracle and save this marriage," he opined dubiously, "but I wouldn't hold my breath."
Frustrated, stressed and myopic, we blamed each other for our failures. I didn't love my husband and wasn't sure he loved me. I couldn't maintain the "happily ever after" facade any longer. My marriage was now in the blender, and I knew it.
We were both ready to call it quits. The only One who wasn't was the One who brought us together 14 years previously.
Now I stood beside the kitchen stove while Chris poured himself a cup of coffee. His nonchalant, "Here-we-go-again" smirk would've ordinarily launched me into orbit. But not this time. This time everything went gray.
I stared right through him and blandly laid out the rest of our lives. No screaming. No yelling. No tears. No nothing. I was numb.
"... So I'm not leaving you" I droned in a dull monotone, "I'll stay here and cook and clean and wash dishes and do laundry and take care of the kids" I knew my eyes had glazed over with apathy, "But as far as any emotional relationship is concerned, I'm done. I don't love you. I don't hate you. I don't feel anything toward you. As far as I'm concerned, this marriage is dead. And I'm dead to you."
I was. I had known about the fissures in our marriage for some time, but I didn't know how to treat them effectively. The "band-aid and scotch tape" approach we'd fallen into trying to patch up our differences hadn't worked. I read the books. Attended the conferences. Watched the videos. Tried the projects. Attended the conferences. Asked for help. Cried the tears and prayed the prayers. Coaxed, cajoled, prodded, nagged, debated, pleaded and persuaded. I tried everything I could think of to color my fading marriage and rekindle our relationship. And failed. Now our marriage was dead.
Chris rolled his eyes and waited for some kind of explosion, steeling himself against the inevitable detonation that was sure to follow. He was mildly surprised when it didn't. I walked into our bedroom, showered, and retired for the night. I didn't hear him come in later. I didn't care.
Chris fed the kids that night, put them to bed, did the dishes, and then brought me a favorite treat: Cookies ‘n Cream ice cream smothered in chocolate sauce. I left the dish on my night stand, untouched.
The next morning Chris made a few halting attempts at conversation. I stared at him blankly, unresponsive. He left the room. I walked into the kitchen, made breakfast, ,and retreated to the bedroom. He followed me.
"Look, if it was something I said yesterday..." Chris began.
I didn't look at him. I didn't even know he was there. He made several similar attempts to draw me out. I neither refused nor responded. I had died inside.
Chris left the room, convinced that he'd "ride it out" again, as usual. "Maybe some flowers and chocolate will do the trick" he mused. He was wrong.
Chris was flummoxed. He could handle shouting, tears, or the "cold shoulder." He could deal with a spouse who was emotionally engaged on SOME level--ANY level. But a walking corpse? That was a different story.
"It was like living with a ghost" Chris said later.
He made several more attempts to break into my emotional lethargy. All failed. Meanwhile, I mechanically managed our household in a zombie-like state. Groceries were bought. Meals prepared. Homework done. I smiled at parties, socialized at potlucks. Going through the motions, I said and did what was expected. I slapped on a fake smile and played "the Christian wife" at church--a role I detested as hypocritical and absurd. After church I came home and reverted to stone.
No one knew the truth. I didn't care if they did.
In the meantime, I began to notice Chris' increased help around the house but remained skeptical of anything beyond a momentary "flash in the pan" performance. I'd seen the "good works to get on her good side" routine come and go before.
Chris soon realized that he had to do more. In fact, he had make a choice: he could either stay with me and resolve to stick things out without any guarantee of improvement or change, or leave. He chose to stay. He assumed full responsibility for resurrecting our relationship. If our marriage was to survive--if our relationship was ever to rekindle--it was up to him. As far as I was concerned, we were beyond salvaging. And in my emotional vacuity I wouldn't, couldn't help.
What I didn't know was that my husband wasn't alone in his endeavors. He started each day drawing strength and direction from the One who made marriage and pronounced it "good." I later learned that Chris set aside one day a week to fast and pray for me, and to intercede for our marital recovery.
"Lord, what's happened to us?" Chris began one morning, voice cracking. "What's happened to our relationship? What happened to our marriage? What have I done to my wife?" he sobbed. I'll do anything You say" he begged, "Just show me how to get her back and I'll do it."
A taut afternoon passed as Chris spent hours on his face before the Lord, listening, meditating, agreeing. Confessing and repenting. A former USMC Infantry officer, my husband lives for a carefully conceived and thoughtfully executed Plan. During those hours of confession and repentance, a plan took shape.
"Are you game?" God seemed to ask. "Are you willing to humble yourself into oblivion so I can do My work of raising her up?" Chris nodded. He knew it wouldn't be easy, but he was not only "game", he was desperate.
He scoured our bookcases for relevant titles on marriage, devoured them and read more. He listened to tapes. Took notes. Prayed hard. Listened more. Joined a men's accountability group. The chorus from an old camp tune drifted into his mind:
"Sin and sadness long had bent
My sprit to the ground
And life for me unbearable had grown
Fear and failure marked my face
So deeply with a frown
Until God's stubborn love upon me shown
Pursuing, ever wooing me He came
And since that Day I've never been the same
Now I'm basking in His stubborn love
An unrelenting, never-ending flow
I'm so happy in His stubborn love
His stubborn love that will not let me go!"
"So, what do You want me to do?" Chris asked the Almighty. The response wasn't quite what he expected.
"Scrub the toilet."
"What....???" Chris thought he'd misheard. Then he realized that in 14 years of marriage, he'd never volunteered to scrub the toilet. Not once.
It dawned on him that his regular "come home routine" of eating dinner, plopping down in front of the TV, channel surfing all evening, dozing in front of Jay Leno, and turning in made him tuned out and emotionally "tone deaf."
He shuffled into the bathroom, grabbed a scouring pad, sponge and cleanser, and scrubbed the entire bathroom into "spit and polish" shape that would've made a Drill Sergeant proud.
And while Chris worked on his "hearing", The Plan eventually crystallized into what he calls the "The Six Seize":
1. Creative kindnesses
Weeks passed. I was a little better, occasionally engaging in 30-second "sound bites," but still an emotional Siberia. Chris continued to cultivate kindness with creativity and consistency.
Recalling my penchant for Hershey's anything, he regularly indulged my fondness for Hershey's chocolate bars with almonds. He gassed up and washed my car. Noticed my favorite authors and brought home arm loads of their titles from the library. Let ME choose the movie.
"How ‘bout I do the grocery shopping?" Chris offered one blustery afternoon. I detest shopping and often griped about this chore. The weight of the world vacated my shoulders when my husband took over the weekly "grocery run" duties.
Chris was sometimes discouraged by my lack of response. Without any encouragement or reinforcement from his wooden wife, he wanted to throw in the towel more than once. But he refused to give up. He was committed, with a stubborn love from the most Stubborn Lover of all.
Noting that I have the mechanical aptitude of a Three-Toed Sloth, Chris tuned up my car himself rather than sending me to Jiffy Lube. He fixed my hair dryer, microwave and leaky faucets. Put up the Christmas tree and lights. Spent days diagnosing and rebuilding my computer after a virus killed it. He even darned socks and sewed award badges on the kids' AWANA uniforms. And kept scrubbing the bathroom.
With practice and study, he improved his communication skills. When I gingerly vented frustration, he made eye contact and listened. Instead of trying to "advise" me out of my frustration, he let me vent. He listened. Not with one ear, but both. This was quite a change from someone whose idea of "communication" meant grunting for another Coke during Half-time. Now on the rare occasions when I had something to say, he turned off the TV and gave me his full attention. I liked not having to compete with Frank Gifford.
Chris looked for other ways to "Stubborn Love" me back into life. It didn't take long to find one. Previously, Chris made the most of any opportunity to slip in a cutting remark or a snide comment at my expense. While I doubt that he ever deliberately tried to embarrass me in public, my husband's "joking" made me cringe. While I was often mortified, Chris didn't seem to notice my discomfort.
"Hey, I was just kidding!" he'd counter my protests.
I wasn't amused and resented his verbal put-downs. He couldn't understand my "thin skin." I couldn't understand his insensitivity. Because neither of us communicated our perspectives effectively, we usually retreated to the resigned silence of mutual frustration.
"You're right" Chris agreed when I cautiously broached the subject following an evening out with friends after the "Stubborn Love" plan took shape. "That's a stupid thing for me to do to you. I'm wrong. Will you forgive me? I'll never do that again."
He was as good as his word. Chris not only halted the verbal put-down habit, he also started cultivating another: praising me in public. Not with empty flattery, but with genuine compliments that were sincere.
The verbal bouquets he offered reflected the fact that he noticed and appreciated my efforts in everything from cooking to clothing to colors. I nearly fell over the first time I heard him complimenting a recent dinner I made to a third party, proudly praising my culinary skills. The difference this new tact made in our relationship was remarkable.
Besides regular doses of compliments, creative kindness and active communication, Chris also made non-sexual contact a part of his daily routine. He rubbed my feet, held my hand, offered "twice a day" hugs. At first I brushed aside his embraces and pecks on the cheek, annoyed. But how long can the average wife ignore a husband nuzzling her neck over mashed potatoes? I eventually found his physical affection soothing and reassuring.
When Chris surrendered the TV remote to my charge, I knew something was different. Where I once resented his homecomings, I found myself looking forward to them. I even missed him while he was at work and suddenly found that nine hours was a long time to wait for my new best friend to come home. Chris found a way to address that, too. No matter how busy his work day, he always found a spare moment to squeeze in a "Just called to say I love you" call, a practice he continues to this day.
Even an iceberg can't remain frozen forever in the vicinity of warm water and tropical breezes. With Chris's patient coaching and coaxing, I started thawing.
It was the Cheering Section that finally did it. I learned firsthand that an affirming, applauding spouse can work wonders. Reserved and cautious by nature, I'm usually the last person to dash into unfamiliar surroundings or volunteer in a new situation. Chris isn't. Some of his conviviality has rubbed off. More importantly, I know he's in my corner rooting for me. This assurance boosts my confidence and has expanded my horizons in ways I wouldn't have considered without the loyal and unflagging support of my #1 Fan.
It took time, but God gave us our miracle, and more. He resurrected us both. When we look back on those dark days of a decade past, we barely recognize the pale, anemic ghosts of our marital past. Of course we're not perfect now. We have our ups and downs, same as you. But we'd rather spend time with each other than with anyone else. We laugh more, argue less, and forgive. Chris still does the groceries and the bathroom. Ditto chocolate. Together, we've learned that the fruits of faithfulness, while not always immediate, are definitely sweet. And that Stubborn Love, just like its Source, is eternal.
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