When Dan and I were engaged, I silently observed married couples and learned a lot about how I didn’t want to treat him. Taking note of passive-aggressive comments, explicitly aggressive tones, eye rolling, and public shaming, I vowed to myself that I’d never try to make Dan feel stupid, that I’d show him the same kindness and gentleness I show my mom, my friends, my coworkers, strangers at the store.
Though I didn’t say these exact words aloud during my vows, this is what I meant when I said, “I promise to respect you.” I promise to be nice to you, publicly and privately.
A few nights ago Dan and I were doing the after-work, pre-bedtime shuffle. I was cooking dinner, jumping from the computer screen to the spice cabinet, dashing from the cutting board over to the pot, stirring frantically to try to avoid burning the chicken.
Selah was yelling for more food; Riley was under my feet every time I turned around; obnoxious kid songs were playing in the background, the volume three clicks too loud. In the midst of the chaos, Dan had the nerve to ask me if I had some lip balm handy.
Do I look like I have lip balm handy?
“Yeah, there should be some in the small pocket of my purse.” Chop, chop, chop.
“Are you sure? I don’t see any in here.”
“No, not that small pocket, the other one.” Stir, stir, stir.
“I still don’t see any.”
“HERE. RIGHT HERE. I ALWAYS KEEP A SPARE RIGHT HERE ON THE COUNTER.” Sigh, stir, chop.
“I really didn’t know.” He turns back to Selah, quietly cutting more food, and I feel the weight of what I’ve done.
If Dan had spoken to me that way, implying that I was a nuisance, my spirit would have been crushed. But here’s the thing: he never does. Because even though he’s never said it, I know he made the same vow I did. I promise to be nice to you.
He’s a lot better at keeping it than I am.
My parents divorced when I was 22, when I believed their marriage was stronger than ever, having survived years that were too tumultuous and too rocky for me to comprehend.
In the resulting years, it was easy to blame one person—the one who walked away in the end. While I still hold one parent responsible for the final choice that caused my parents’ marriage to finally collapse, I can also see how much deeper it went than a single, out-of-the-blue choice (which, as it turns out, was not entirely out of the blue).
I’ve been married for only three years, so I am quite far from being any sort of expert, but I do know more than I did when I was single, during our engagement, or in our first year of marriage. I can see the tiniest sliver of the big picture of how arduous marriage can feel and the stress that comes with life changes, the big and the small, the positive and the painful.
From what I can tell so far, this is what it boils down to: everyday decisions make or break our marriages.
And often, those everyday decisions are as simple as whether we will respond with disdain, with words that belittle and deprecate, or whether we will respond with tenderness, respect, and kindness.
We’ve all heard the analogy that marriage is like a tapestry. It’s strong and taut when woven properly—difficult to pull apart, even though the threads that compose it are fragile. When the threads have integrity and are woven together with great care and skill, the result is not just a thing of strength but a thing of beauty. A piece of art. An heirloom.
Every day, our kindness weaves one thread over, under; our grace weaves another one over, under. A snarky tone yanks a thread back and unravels some progress, but a humble “I’m so sorry” gets it back on track.
Over, under. Over, under. Over, under.
Dan comes home late, and I’m exhausted from a day with Selah, and he has more work to do, and I don’t try to make him feel guilty.
Dan switches out the light bulbs and takes out the trash and cleans up the dog poop and cuts the grass without complaining.
I clean the kitchen without sighing passive-aggressively in an attempt to call attention to myself.
We decide to go out on a date, even though it’s a pain to leave Selah and money is a little tight and so are my jeans, but we go anyway.
We decide that, just for tonight, we’re not going to watch Netflix but instead we’re going to play a board game and talk and drink wine and laugh.
I kiss Dan hello before I kiss Selah, and I ask him how his day was before launching into everything that went wrong in mine. I listen with my ears and with my eyes and with my phone still tucked away in my bag.
Before I got married, I believed that the most beautiful kind of love is the one that spans years, has navigated storms, has survived harsh seasons. Of course I knew at a logical level that the only way to build this love is over time: it doesn’t develop on its own; it can’t be rushed. There is real life that has to be lived, nerves that will be tapped on day in and day out, a thousand tiny, everyday decisions that will pile up.
On that warm July day when we said our vows in front of friends and family, I couldn’t understand what it would feel like to walk with one person every day and how quickly I would become comfortable with married life — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I also didn’t realize how quickly my comfort would come to trump courtesy.
In letting Dan see the truest me — for better or for worse, at my best or at my ugliest, the polished me or the raw me — I let myself get too comfortable at my worst.
It turns out that “letting yourself go” is about a lot more than wearing sweatpants and having dirty hair and not working out as much. I let myself go by not guarding my tongue, by slowly rescinding my promise to be nice, by letting us become adversaries instead of teammates.
I’m tempted here to tell you how much I love Dan and how most of the time our marriage is happy and we are kind to one another. This would all be true, and yet it would only be part of the story.
Because right now, I think if I put my kind words and thoughts on one side of a scale and my snarky tones and clipped words on the other side, they might come dangerously close to balancing out.
But I want a marriage that tips the scales.I want a #marriage that tips the scales: the power of tenderness in everyday moments. Click To Tweet