Fourteen years ago, Scott and I said "I do" at the beautiful Dunaway Gardens in Newnan, Georgia. The setting was paradise, and the day felt magical. Surrounded by our closest friends and family, with my daughter and his two sons by our sides, we vowed before God to forever stick together – in health, in sickness, in scarcity, in plenty, in the aftermath of losing a child, in the depths of depression, and through the ugliness of our own behavior, we vowed to power-through for the sake of love. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have dreamed up vows that were actually in-line with what reality would throw at us. Marriage wasn’t an earthly paradise, and it certainly lost its magical charm very quickly after we joined our families together. The ups and downs of step-parenting, foster parenting, adopting, losing a child, raising a child with mental illness, all while managing our own emotions was hard. Like, seriously hard. Like, “why did we do this” hard. Our Shangri-La wedding did not translate into a fairytale marriage.
The good news is that we are still standing. Don't be fooled though - we've been tempted to throw in the towel a couple times. Despite knowing what the Bible says and taking my vows very seriously, divorce called to me and offered me a reprieve from the messages of “not good enough” that riddled my thoughts within the context of our marriage. Never had Scott uttered those words. He didn’t have to. Life had already taken its toll on me, much the same as Scott, and our messages and subsequent armor were solidified even before we married. And so we danced the destructive dance of self-protection with each other right from the beginning.
The dance looked like this. To protect myself from getting hurt, I withdrew, acted stoic, and pulled-back from giving affection. In response, Scott withdrew and reached out to his groups of men to meet his needs for relationship and acceptance. I took on more work and ministry opportunities, withdrawing further, protecting more. Scott then felt unseen, unloved, and unwanted and numbed out on his phone to escape. His actions touched my deep wound of rejection. My actions touched his deep wound of abandonment. Would I be rejected if I prioritized him over work? Would he be abandoned if he moved toward me? The dance of self-protection is an exhausting one. We were tired, and we were done. Self-protection thwarted intimacy. Divorce loomed.
Instead of calling it quits, however, we decided to dig in to the muck and mire of our lives to figure out how to honor our vows. We unearthed core wounds, exposed the messages we believed about ourselves, and discovered the unlovely ways we showed up in response. Yes, we had hard times in the course of our marriage, but the hard times were not the issue. The way we made sure that we would never be hurt again was the issue.
We’ve heard the saying “love is a choice” a million times. I found there are multiple facets to “choosing to love” that give this clichéd statement some handles. Here’s what “choosing to love” looked like for us.
1. We chose to do our “work.”
Our self-protection was based on our stories, so Scott and I entered into the hard work of exploring our wounds. After digging into my story, it made complete sense why I wanted to protect myself – from childhood teasing to family of origin issues to a failed first marriage. Ouch, yes – I never wanted to feel that pain again. Awareness of the why’s was the first step. The next step was even harder.
2. We chose to risk.
We then had a choice – give into our fears and stay separate or risk moving toward each other. Risk rejection, abandonment, disappointment, and hurt. The cost of not moving toward Scott outweighed the risk, and so I did – I moved toward my husband. Or maybe he moved toward me first. It doesn’t matter. We both made small steps to move toward each other. He checked out from one of his men’s groups. I began putting away my computer at 6:30 each night. He put away his phone when we were together. I touched his arm as I walked past him. The dance changed. With each risk, we met each other’s efforts with acceptance and love, and trust developed.
3. We chose to believe.
This isn’t the old cliché that goes something like “we chose to believe in us.” (Cue the 80’s power ballad.) It was much deeper than that. We chose to reject the negative messages. We chose to believe that we were everything that God says we are - loveable, acceptable, and worthy. A sense of safety gave way to vulnerability, which opened the door to true intimacy and a belief that we both were completely loved and accepted by the other. An entirely different dance emerged.
Our magical wedding day did turn into a fairytale marriage, even on the other side of hard times. For us the key was to change up the dance by looking at our own behaviors and the why’s behind them, by risking moving toward each other even when it felt scary, and by letting go of the untrue messages that fed our self-protection. Gone are the days of our self-protective dance. These days, you can find us in a dance class – actually dancing with each other – and it feels so good!
Heather Papay lives in Colorado with her husband Scott and their children. She is a lover of animals, a pursuer of truth, and a passionate fighter for the hurting, lost, and broken.