My husband, Randy, and I moved back to Tennessee from our homestead in Wisconsin and entered the hardest season of our marriage. I had asked to come home because I missed family, and Randy honored his promise that we could return to Tennessee in two years if I wanted to.
But it wasn’t without cost. He’d left behind our 1920s farmhouse he had remodeled with shiplap and a Russian-style fireplace; his raised garden beds; and the three hundred pine trees he had planted. And I had to live with him while knowing what he’d given up.
My happiness, it seemed, had come at the expense of his.
For six months, we lived in an emotional gridlock: he was frustrated because he missed Wisconsin, and I was frustrated because I couldn’t understand why our family wasn’t enough.
Every afternoon, once I’d gotten our toddler down for a nap, our four-year-old and I would go downstairs to my in-laws’ living room, since we were living with them at the time, and would work on my fifth novel, How the Light Gets In, a contemporary spin on the story of Ruth set on a cranberry farm in Wisconsin. The story revolves around loss and love, marriage and moving on, but in the midst of it, I was trying to understand my own husband… our own marriage.
Around Christmastime, five months after our late summer move, I contacted an older woman friend and told her our situation. Her advice was simple: she told me I needed to put Randy at the forefront of my prayer life, and then draw a circle around myself and focus on fixing the person inside it.
So, every morning before our girls awoke, I would cross the road over to our new property and walk and pray while the dew hung heavy on the grass. And you know what I learned? It’s really hard to be mad when you’re praying for someone. I found myself blessing my husband, and after blessing him, my walls naturally lowered and love reawakened my heart.
Instead of frustration, I found love. Instead of wondering why we weren’t enough for my husband, I found that I was enough through my identity in Jesus. Once I was no longer looking to Randy for my identity, he was then free to process what he’d lost without me essentially telling him to get over it.
It took time for us to find each other again. Just as those defenses weren’t erected overnight, it took many days for them to come down. But the defensive bricks came apart as we listened to hear each other’s heart rather than listening for our own response.
The strongest lesson I learned through that six-month period is that my identity cannot be in my husband. Randy had never made me responsible for his happiness, and yet I had made him responsible for mine. But of course, he could never do enough to fulfill me because he is fallible. Jesus is the only one who is perfect. My identity has to be found in him alone, and that identity shift frees my husband, allowing him to love me from a place of freedom rather than frustration. Because who wants to be almost daily reminded that who they are is not enough?
Randy would tell you that he learned as much as I did. His lessons also came slowly. Those lessons culminated before his brain surgery on January 4, 2019, to remove the benign tumor that had grown back from his surgery in 2014. They had wheeled him into the operating room, and he had to maneuver himself onto the mattress. They put a mask over his face and told him to breathe deep and to think of his “happy place.” My husband’s heart pounded as he rapidly clicked through the images in his mind.
It wasn’t my face he saw, the faces of our three children, or that homestead he’d left behind in Wisconsin.
Tears came as my husband realized Jesus was the only one. My husband was minutes—possibly seconds—away from brain surgery, and nothing else mattered but him.
Jesus has become my husband’s happy place, and Jesus has also become mine.
If our marriages are going to thrive, we cannot expect the other person to fulfill our needs or heal our wounds. We have to pursue Jesus’ heart, who is the only one who can fulfill the longings he’s placed inside it, longings meant to drive us to him. When we allow Jesus to fill our hearts and heal those broken places, then we are entering our marriages looking for ways to love our spouse instead of looking for ways they are not measuring up to the standard of our love.
The best part about finding our wholeness in Jesus is that we are transformed into two whole selves rather than halves trying to find that completion in each other. This frees us to each walk in our giftings, to pull together as a team, rather than each striving to pull one, and then striving to pull the other, creating a mismatched, frustrated fit.
That wholeness is revolutionary, for both our marriages and the world.
Find your wholeness in Jesus, not in your spouse. As contradictory as it may sound, you will then love your spouse better when you put Jesus before him.
Read more from Jolina Petersheim in her new novel, How the Light Gets In.
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