Something was wrong between us. The symptoms were subtle, not easy to pinpoint. I couldn’t diagnose the problem.
My husband was being too nice.
Our marriage was shiny and new, only a few months old. We were newlyweds, at that shocked and bashful stage where the bathroom door is kept closed and you find yourselves constantly saying, “I can’t believe we’re married!” So you might expect a husband to be full of niceness, and a wife to welcome it.
But this was not the expansive niceness of a new husband, eager to make his bride smile. It was not the niceness of “These flowers made me think of you” or “Let’s go for a long walk together.”
This was a constrained niceness, eager not to displease. It was the niceness of an over-polite houseguest, and it was the last thing I was expecting from Michael.
“A force to be reckoned with,” my dad called me in his father-of-the-bride speech. This was affectionate dad-speak for “strong-willed, independent, and assertive.” And in Michael, my dad gratefully observed, I had “met my match.” He was right.
Michael, to me, was a miracle. He was confident and strong and humble. He did not need his wife to be little so he could feel big. With Michael, I could be fully and unapologetically Stephanie. He was the husband I had hoped and waited for.
Now the waiting was over and we were married. All the usual newlywed arguments were surfacing – how rarely he would pick up his dirty socks, the ridiculous amount of room he took up in our bed. It took a while for me to realize that these complaints were all on my side, that Michael never responded in kind. This was odd because I was definitely not perfect. And with each new issue I brought up, he nodded quietly. “OK, honey. Sorry.” I was being fully and unapologetically Stephanie, and in response, he was being a weirdly apologetic version of Michael.
Until one day I pushed too far. We were running late, and I said something critical. “Just stop!” Michael shouted. Mid-tirade, I shut up. “I’m being an idiot, aren’t I,” I ventured. “Yes, you are,” Michael said, not unkindly. “You’re right. I’m so sorry.”
Not too long after that Michael brought up our exchange: “You didn’t mind when I yelled at you?”
“Are you kidding? I was glad. I need you to tell me when I’m being a total dork. You’re my husband. If you don’t, who will?”
“I could never really do that, before. I walked around on eggshells a lot, trying so hard to keep the peace. I guess I don’t need to do that with you.” His words were heavy with regret and buoyant with hope.
Before. Michael meant his first marriage. We looked at each other and digested this, how so many of our interactions over the last months had been coloured by his past, how neither of us saw what was happening. How things might now change for the better.
I was relieved, but also nervous. What else would surface in the months ahead?
Quite a lot, it turns out. In a remarriage, there tends to be scar tissue. Divorce will do that to a person. I knew that Michael was coming to me a little tattered and torn. In our months of dating and engagement we had talked and talked and talked. All our big stories had been told, nothing deliberately held back.
Now it seemed that there were scars not even Michael knew about, scars that could cripple our relationship. This was a little disconcerting. We both wanted to enjoy this time of discovering each other. Painful and awkward conversations about the past were not high on our list of ‘Fun Things to Do as Newlyweds.’ It was tempting to pretend everything was fine, that we were just a ‘normal’ couple.
Pretending is always a temptation. In my life before a husband and two babies, I was a runner of half-marathons. Running brought me huge joy – the steadiness of it, the freedom and pride of it. One day, my hip started to hurt. I stretched extra long, rested a couple days. It hurt again the next run, and kept getting worse. I tried to pretend it was fine, tried to run through the pain. But soon my hip hurt between runs too.
So I stopped pretending and went for physical therapy. I remember lying on the table with tears in my eyes, as a stranger man-handled my hip and my butt, digging powerfully into the muscles and tendons. It didn’t feel good. It was a little embarrassing. And it was expensive. But I was willing, if it meant that I could run freely and well.
On a heart-and-soul level, we’re all a mess of injuries. Some are accidents, the result of living in a world that’s broken. Some wounds we inflict on ourselves, and some are inflicted upon us. Deepest of all are the wounds we receive in relationship with the people closest to us. The ones who are meant to love us best, the ones we are meant to love the most.
The truth is, we all walk with a bit of a limp. Michael’s limp was a bit more pronounced than mine, but who was I kidding? I had quite the collection of sore spots myself. And Michael and I didn’t want to limp painfully through our married life. We wanted to run – freely and well and together.
So we got to work. We poked and probed, and tried to massage old scar tissue loose. We asked a lot of questions, stayed alert for signs that something wasn’t quite right. Now and then one of us would overreact in a telling way, and we would put a finger on that spot, try to see what lay underneath. By trial and error, we learned when to push, and when to give each other a break from the past.
The process hasn’t been quick, nor is it complete. Some injuries were too complex for us to diagnose on our own. So we went to a counsellor, who helped us find and root out some of our most damaged parts. When one of us struggled, we learned to stop and sit and wait while the other got the pebble out of their shoe. We tried not to fix each other, but to bring our broken selves to God and ask for healing grace, and to extend that grace to one another.
We could have pretended, I suppose. Ignored the symptoms, and limped along as best we could. To lay yourself bare to another person and to God is not especially comfortable.
I used to think it was a miracle to meet a man whose strength matched my own. Now I know the true miracle is a marriage where we can be crippled together too. That our scars are not permanent, but can be healed if we’re willing to let God man-handle us a little. That it’s possible, side by side, to learn to run.
Read Caramel's story: Blended Family: Caring for the Wounded.
Read more from Stephanie on being a Stepmom