“It’s here! It’s here! Our marriage certificate!” I was a nineteen-year-old June bride, and I could barely contain my joy. Jumping up and down waving it in the face of my husband. The title “husband” still so fresh and foreign on my lips. The envelope said “Mr. and Mrs. His-Name Our-Name.” I beamed. It was the first piece of mail that addressed us that way. No longer two individual people, but one. I had checked the mailbox every day, waiting for that piece of paper.
Still tan from our honeymoon, we looked at the certificate in the kitchen. I wonder if I recognized his lack of excitement in that moment. Did I see his concern when my eyes moved to his? I don’t remember.
Not long after we said “I do,” marriage proved to be nothing like what I had pictured. It was painful. When my expectations exploded, I sank into a depression that I didn’t have the language to describe. I watched TV alone in my office while my husband tinkered in the garage until we went through a familiar refrain.
“Will you come in?”
“Not tonight. I’m busy.”
I would yell, just to do something with the loneliness I felt.
“As far as it depends on you,” they said. So I tried with all my might to change myself and to fix us. I read the books. I studied the scriptures. I convinced him to come with me to counseling. I did the love languages. Tried the silent treatment. Wrote the love letters. Gave the gifts. Changed my personality. Prayed the prayers. Shared with accountability partners. Purchased a sexy outfit. None of it mattered.
I look back at that girl and wish I could scoop her up and say, “This isn’t normal. Marriage is hard, yes. But this isn’t what it’s supposed to look like. Get help.”
But I didn’t know how to get help. I didn’t know what else to try. And I was checking all the boxes.
It wasn’t normal.
Our church hosted a marriage class led by a couple with a sweet southern accent. They stood in the front of the room and confessed, “We wish we could give you a twenty-year-marriage pill. But we can’t. We can tell you everything we’ve learned, but you also just have to live it and figure it out.”
My husband and I discovered how true that was. No amount of foreknowledge or “if I had known then what I know now” would have made a difference. You can’t skip steps in sanctification.
It’s like a baby stacking blocks one after another. You stack three up, it gets unstable, and it all comes crashing down. It can feel excruciating to watch. But you learn some things. About yourself. About communication. About your spouse. And this time, you get to stack four blocks. But then life brings them back down again. Each time you put them back up, you are stronger, wiser, kinder, and you build up farther and farther. But what happens when all the work, tears, and years don’t amount to the hope you held in your prayers? What if God still answers, “No,” even when you’re following him and attempting to honor him? What if you never get to build further up and you are always watching the blocks fall down?
I’m twenty-seven now. We have been separated for nine months. I can see the writing on the wall. We won’t get back together. At least not without a miracle. One day I received an email that said my drivers license was about to expire. I went online to see what kind of documentation I would need to update it. The obvious stuff like Social Security card, birth certificate, current driver’s license . . .
The website asked if any of those documents had a maiden name on them.
Yes. Cool. No big deal. I just need to bring my marriage certificate.
I let out a sigh. Our marriage hadn’t been a marriage for a long time. That piece of paper, our wedding bands, and our son have been the only things connecting us. And soon the material things won’t even be relevant anymore.
Renewing your driver’s license is not supposed to elicit a negative emotional response. Yes, the DMV is usually an annoyance. Not a traumatic event. That’s the thing about grief. You wake up in the morning and think, I’m doing it. This is hard, but I’m managing it. I think I’m figuring this out. Then, at 7:30 p.m., the DMV website makes you ugly cry.
I went to the basement, opened the safe, and dug through the papers to find the certificate.
“I’m fine. Everything’s fine. This is okay,” I muttered to myself as I search. “Why are there so many papers in here? Why isn’t this better organized? Where is my birth certificate? I hope we haven’t lost anything.”
Then I spotted it. The mailing label with our names. I closed my eyes. The memories flooded my mind. I saw us picking out the colors of the groomsmen tuxes. Then there was a slammed door after a fight. I felt the crisp fall day we got engaged. I saw the positive pregnancy test. I watched a replay of an evening spent estranged.
But mostly, I remembered that feeling, the presence of a dark cloud that we could not lift.
My three-year-old son and I go to the DMV the morning after I received the email. When we arrived to a line of twenty people waiting for the doors to open stretched down the sidewalk. Inside my son made everyone around us smile with a string of questions every adult is asking in their mind:
“Who are all these people? How long will we be here? How do we get out of here? What is she doing?”
We got through our painful errand and celebrated by having breakfast at a local diner. Life moved on.
That’s the thing about grief. You can’t always stop to feel all of it. It rises up when you’re watching a movie for the first time alone. When you want to vent about the small stuff, but don’t have someone to go home to. When you think too far into the future. When you wonder what will become of your wedding bands. When you’re at work and you have to keep checking items off the to-do list. When you’re with your friends and laughing and you thought it would feel good to laugh but now you just want to shout, “I’m not okay!”
The grief cycle is real, and there really is no order, or rhyme, or reason. It’s fickle.
I used to think that hope meant our marriage would be healed. I eventually figured out that I was accidentally believing a false gospel. I’m a “good” Christian—I can articulate sound theology: We hope in the Lord, not in changed circumstances. But somewhere along the way, my heart started believing that I was promised restoration and reconciliation because I was following the Lord. It made me bitter. When your circumstances don’t wrap up nicely in a bow, just because you tried hard, you have to go back to scripture and preach to yourself what Paul meant in Romans 5 when he talked about hope.
Suffering produces endurance. Loving and laying your life down for the spouse that is indifferent towards you.
Endurance produces character. Clawing your way to health through any means necessary. Keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus as you stumble and fall and make mistakes, but never taking your eyes off of him. And not only getting through, but thriving, and making good choices, despite your circumstances.
Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
Grief will threaten to engulf me with despair, but because of the hope I’ve been given, I can wake up every day, look my son in the eyes, hug him tight, make him breakfast, and teach him about the one who sustains us. Perseverance produces hope in the God who saves.
Cover image by Maxwell Ridgeway