Near the end of our first year of marriage, Bill and I told some friends we needed a mini-retreat just for the two of us, but we couldn’t afford it. We had some decisions to pray and talk about. I forget what they were, but they were important enough to merit a day in a state park cabin somewhere. Our well-meaning friends mistakenly concluded “get away” meant romance, so they scraped together some funds to make it happen. Early on a Friday afternoon we were alerted to the presence of a white cardboard jewelry box on our back porch. Laid across the cotton inside the box was a motel key and under it an envelope with ten bucks for dinner out on the town. Our friends were poor graduate students like us, but they did the best they could.
I possess the uncanny ability to shift gears in the time it takes to turn the key in the door of a sleazy downtown Fort Worth, Texas, motel room. In my mind, just like that, our spiritual retreat turned into a steamy rendezvous. If Victoria’s Secret had existed back then, I would have skimmed some grocery money to up the ante on our first night in a motel since our honeymoon. Bill, on the other hand, has a need for what we now affectionately call “conditioning prior to change.” He doesn’t warm up to new plans overnight, which was less time than he had to adjust in this instance. So while I was packing candles, matches, bubble bath, and something indecently lacey in my bag, Bill was stuffing his books into his briefcase because he had a lot of homework that weekend.
Somehow I failed to notice the presence of the briefcase until the elevator ride to our room. Talk about getting our signals crossed.
Before I walk you into that ill-fated motel room, let me take you back two years to a conversation Bill and I had in the parking lot of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Buford Highway in Atlanta. That way, I’ll give the necessary background to adequately convey the colossal proportions of the argument we had in the dingy little Fort Worth motel room two years later.
I now believe most marriages have at least one tender spot, perhaps the marital version of the “thorn in the flesh,” a dark theme that plays hauntingly and recurrently beneath the melody. Our conversation in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot introduced us for the first time to our theme. It was just a peek, but it was unmistakable one.
We had been dating a few months, Bill had already told me he loved me, but I had no idea what he thought of how I looked. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I flat out asked him. I think I disclaimered it to death, but the bottom line was:
Do you think I’m ugly or pretty or somewhere in between?”
At that moment, he had no idea how much I needed this information. He reassured me in so many words, and he explained that he thought Christian girls didn’t want to be objectified like that. And I’d agree that we don’t, not by just anybody. But by our fiancés or husbands, oh yes. Am I right? I know it seems a little silly, but this conversation defined our theme: I needed an inordinate amount of affirmation and affection from Bill, and he, by nature and on principle, was somewhat stingy with it.
Our theme is a collision of our backgrounds and our emotional hardwiring. I grew up in a family that placed a high value on physical affection and verbal affirmation. The first time Bill came to visit, my mother accidentally patted him on the rear. (She meant to swat me, but Bill and I had just switched places. To her credit, she was almost as mortified as Bill was.) Overt affection is like a gene I can’t escape. It’s a wonder he stuck around. Bill grew up in a family that is the exact opposite. The only affection he ever experienced was from a crazy—not kidding—great aunt whose first act upon entering their home was to wipe her lipstick off with the back of her hand in anticipation of kissing you, and who insisted on pulling you onto her lap . . . at the baseball field when you’re in your little league uniform. All other expressions of love in his home were of the solid, service-rendering variety. No frills. So it’s no wonder he could not see that I might die from lack of affection and affirmation. No wonder my overtures and my questions made him feel awkward and even, I hate to think of it now, inadequate.
Bill and I know our “theme” inside out now. Most of the historic moments in our marriage center around some version of it. We are better at talking about it, getting past it, even celebrating it than ever now. We see it coming from a mile away. And we hardly ever freak out about it when it does.
A radical decision
In the two years between the Dunkin’ Donuts conversation and the Fort Worth motel, we had become more familiar with our theme. But still, it took us by surprise every time. It’s like the same thief broke into our home over and over, breaking glass, stealing silver, scaring the living daylights out of us. We felt a little powerless against it.
Robert Frost said, “The best way around is always through.” That night in the downtown Fort Worth motel we went through our theme instead of around it for the first time. But not before getting stuck, big time, at the entrance. That night was one of only a handful of times in over thirty years that we went to bed still hurt and angry. I cried myself to sleep, replaying every word until I thought I’d retch. Bill slept. The final insult.
We can’t remember the argument now, not one word of it. I just know it had something to do with what I packed and what he packed, with the expectations more than the lingerie and the textbooks. The conclusion I drew when we finally quit talking because our talking was only making things worse, was that I would never get what I needed from my husband. I would not leave, so I was stuck. He felt—and this pains me to say more than anything—that he would never be able to cross the great divide between us. It was the impasse of all impasses. Until the sun came up.
What happened next is now such a familiar part of our history, I forget how radical it was. We shared this story with a group of young couples in our home recently and watched as they gave each other knowing looks. Many of them recognized our theme song because a similar version of it played in the backgrounds of their own marriages. When we got to the part about going to bed without a solution, they interrupted us, knowing how well we mesh thirty-plus years later, and asked, “So, what did you do?”
We told them about the unilateral decision we made the next morning that changed everything, that changed us. We were surprised when most of them seemed shocked and said, “No way! Never! That wouldn’t work.” Clearly, we’d hit a nerve.
I think it started as Bill’s idea, but I readily agreed. For two entire months, I fasted from showing affection of any kind to Bill. I’d developed this ugly habit of oozing affection toward him in an effort to get it from him. It had to stop. He, by default, considered that for affection to exist between us at all, it would fall upon him to initiate it. I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about something more pervasive and, in many ways, more powerful. Any touch, any handholding, any embrace, any stroke of a finger across an arm, any sitting so close that our thighs touched, any pats on the shoulder even, these would cease to be a part of our life together unless Bill made the effort.
Because, you see, I was so quick to initiate what came naturally to me, I had never given him the chance.
Dying to live
To go through our dark theme and emerge in the light on the other side, something had to die. According to Jesus, death is the first choice on the way to life. Something in our marriage had to die. Not wane, not get managed, not be circumvented. Die, as in dealt a final blow.
That’s what we did over thirty years ago in the downtown motel. We died. I died to my right to be loved the way I thought I needed or deserved. Bill died to his right to cherish me in his own way alone, to doing only what came naturally to him. Together, but each in our own necessary ways, we died.
How did it work out? If you’d interviewed the young us two months later, I’m pretty sure we would have glanced at each other, held hands more tightly and replied that death is worth it every time. But what about now? Sure, I still have times when my need for affection is a fraction greater than Bill’s capacity to give it. He still has moments when he is bewildered by my neediness. But the trajectory of our marriage was redirected that night. We died so we could live, and we do it over and over again. This is the reason those young couples gathered in our living room were so shocked by what they heard. Death, the ultimate action of grace, is a big risk.
It’s a risk I’m willing to take. And it has paid off, big time. Giving Bill grace in this area freed him to grow and lead and give. I am, almost always, a satisfied woman as a result. So satisfied that I wasn’t all that surprised by an entry I discovered not long ago in his journal from 1977, the year we met. Maybe he wasn’t very verbally affirming or affectionate back then, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t inside of him. A week after our first date, he wrote about my character and personality, and then he added, “and all in a pretty package, too.” His affection was in there all along, at the Dunkin Donuts, at the Fort Worth motel, and, I am sure of this because he does such a good job showing me, it is there now. I just had to die to make room for it.