What I Want More Than an End to Porn

A friend told me recently about a kid in third grade who was having behavioral troubles: saying and doing weird stuff, relating oddly to his peers. A little sleuth work from adults who love him revealed why: he’d been exposed to—and nearly devoured by—porn on his phone. He is eight years old.

EIGHT.

This story was shocking because of the age of the person involved, but sadly not because of the content. More and more I hear from pastors and friends and wives-of-husbands and mothers-of-teens about the soul-destroying , imagination-crushing, joy-sapping and trust-smashing effects of pornography. In their homes. Classrooms. Churches.

And, more recently, I’ve had young men (and women, because this is not just a men’s issue) tearfully confess to me how they feel like they’re drowning in this addiction. They know they shouldn’t, but they just don’t know how to stop. They can’t unsee what they’ve seen, and somewhere deep inside them there’s an insatiable visceral growl to see more, and more, and more.

I feel their despair and some of their hopelessness: addictions are so hard to break. Will they ever be able to have healthy sex lives? Is it really that bad? If they’re Christians, will God forgive them? Will they ever be able to go to sleep and not be assaulted by mental images that tantalize and torment them?

Of course, there’s all the research out there that says STOP, JUST STOP using porn. It’s bad for you: it’s rewiring your brain, wrecking adolescentsdestroying your capacity for intimacy in relationships, underpinning human trafficking, and more. Heck, even manly man magazine GQ has a list of reasons why you should stop watching porn, including that it declines arousal rates, increases rates of erectile dysfunction, and leads to all-round lower energy and productivity rates.

Stopping such high-sensory-feedback, addictive habits is notoriously difficult, particularly when there’s the cloak of shame that makes community support and encouragement (often the bedrock of any addiction recovery plan) all the more difficult. But the good advice and necessary steps to stopping remain important and true:

  • find a buddy/community who can help you identify when you feel weakest/most likely to indulge.
  • take practical steps to make access more difficult for you: alcoholics purge their homes of alcohol. Porn addicts  need to get their screens the heck out of their bedrooms and enclosed spaces. Put your phone and laptop in the living room. Keep the office door open. Install software that flags porn and give someone else the passwords to check it.
  • Look for the encouragement from people who’ve walked this road before you, whether in person or online. There are stories of people who’ve come out on the other side. These are important for the wisdom they give as well as for cultivating hope. We *need* to hear stories of people who will say “I used to have these images in my mind ALL the time, but it’s been a year and I’m not so haunted anymore. It gets better.”
  • Celebrate little victories. A year without porn doesn’t happen until you’ve had a day, two days, three days, a week without it. Each of these is worth celebrating.

But the more I listen and read and pray over this situation, the more I realize that I want more for people than for them to stop using pornYes, I want them to be free of the entrapment and shame and damage that it does – but I want more for them than freedom. Just like I want more for a caged animal than for it to be let out of its cage: I want to see it run free in its habitat. I want to see it flourishing in the areas it wasn’t able to before.

This is what I want for a generation trapped in porn addiction: I want them to be free, but I want more:

  • I want for you to have a network of healthy, rich, rewarding relationships with men and women of different ages. I want you to be able to laugh, work, partner, play, and grow with men and women in friendship and companionship, without it being weird or erotic. I want for you, young men, to have female FRIENDS you enjoy and admire and respect. I want for you, young women, to have male FRIENDS you enjoy and admire and respect. I don’t want you to be afraid of your own psyche or taunted imagination: I want you to be able to share a story or a project or a hug or whatever with freedom and joy with men or women around you.
  • I want you to kindle your creative imagination: to use your time and energy to devote to something you love and can do well. Hours of addiction, particularly addiction which rewires our brain with (terrible!) narrative plots, kill our imagination. I want you to invent something, build something, write something, chase after an ambition, run a 10k race, take up rock climbing, adopt a puppy and train it to do amazing tricks. Whatever. I want to see you experience joy and fulfillment in something you put your energy into.
  • I want you to experience your sexuality – your maleness or femaleness – as something good, beautiful, and true – not terrifying or debilitating or depraved. We are not androgynous personalities, we are male and female in all our relationships and endeavors, and I want you to know that being a woman is good and being a man is good and to think and pray and explore what that means. Our sex-crazed society has eroticized all of our gendered conversations and I want us to reclaim that good and holy ground: what does it mean to be a BROTHER and not just a sibling? What does it mean to be a DAUGHTER and not just a child? How is it unique that you are a GUY-friend or a GIRL-friend to your community? How do we experience being sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters in the church?
  • I want you to know the powerful and healing good of non-sexual, physical touch. Greet one another with a holy kiss, the Apostle said; and Jesus—while totally able to heal with a word—repeatedly TOUCHED people in his dealings with them. I want you to be able to give and receive hugs, handshakes, and the laying on of hands in prayer in life-affirming ways.
  • I want you to know, both in conviction and hopefully one day in experience, the richness that married sex can bring. It’s so much better, so much more rewarding, so vastly different from the sex that is peddled online. I want you to know that it’s possible and doable, even for broken people. I know, because I’m one of them.

Thinking through this list gives me courage, though. Because while there’s not a lot I can do to help people STOP using porn, there’s a lot I can do to help be part of a redeeming and healthy community of men and women. I can invite men and women over and be a healthy female friend to them. I can ask questions about people’s interests and hobbies and encourage them in them in creativity: attend that art exhibition, cheer them on in their first race, post a picture of their cool art on instagram. I can notice and affirm healthy relationships where I see them – for someone who’s internally feeling that they are not a safe or worthwhile person to be in a relationship with the opposite sex because of their internal shame struggle with porn, perhaps it could be life giving to have someone else affirm: “you were a good friend to her when you said/did x,y,z.” And, of course, we can be healthy touchers. I’m a believer in hugs and handshakes and words of affirmation. And, as readers of this blog know, I’m a believer in sharing hopeful, redemptive stories about marriage and sex.

There’s a battle going on for the hearts, minds, and imaginations of this generation. I can’t be the 1am gatekeeper or take down the porn industry; but this much I can do:

I can pray.

I can encourage.

And I can help be part of the forgiven and flourishing community of women and men that God intended for us, and keep inviting people to experience True Life there.

This much, I can do.

 

 

“How can I cope with my sexual feelings when I’m single and there’s no end to my celibacy in sight?”

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Dear Bronwyn,

I read your article on sexuality when you’re single  and the importance for me as a guy of developing gendered friendships with both men and women; but I’m not sure what that looks like. What do you mean by “embracing sexuality as a man” while remaining sexually pure in friendships with women?

I am 26 year old Christian man, trying to “wait until marriage”, but I’m struggling with feelings and needs, and the older I get, the more worried and sad I get about it. I don’t want to sin, but I feel the need to do some things I shouldn’t, and I just wish I could marry and fulfill these desires in a non-sinful way. I’ve tried eliminating thoughts of sex from my mind, but it isn’t working. I feel so guilty and unclean about these desires, and I’m lonely too because, while I make friends easily, I’m shy with the girls I’m interested in and nobody seems to like me enough to be my girlfriend. The fact that there are no dating prospects in sight (and so, no foreseeable end to this frustration) feels like an unending burden.

Can you help?

Lonely and Longing

Dear LaL,

Here’s the challenging thing about talking about sexuality these days: instead of sexuality referring to our identity as men and women, and what that means for us relationally; we almost always associate sexuality with SEX. This is very much a feature of the age we live in: we’re saturated in a sexualized and sexualizing world – where women are viewed as sexual objects: in obscene and awful way (like porn), but also in a zillion other ways that happen so frequently around us that we think it’s normal. “Getting the girl” is the plot for umpteen stories: a couple landing up in bed is the closing scene—the climax!—of narratives from TV to movies to music. Sexily clad women are in the media all around us: selling cars and web host services and beer and soap to men, and selling beauty products and dream vacations and who knows what else to women. The world we live in puts a CRAZY amount of pressure on men and women to direct their thoughts and goals towards landing up naked together.

I think the church has, in some way, drunk the Kool-Aid. We, too, have focused our conversations regarding sexuality on what you can and cannot do with your genitals. We haven’t left a lot of room for conversation and imagination on what it means to be men and women apart from being sexually active. We have bought into the lie that we are supposed to function as androgynous/asexual Christians in all our friendships and relationships; and then expected people to “flip a switch” and suddenly turn on their sexuality and express their maleness and femaleness safely once they’re married.

This doesn’t work. But of course, you know that. This is exactly what you’re struggling with. We are not asexual beings who suddenly get permission to inhabit our sexuality once we get married. We are, for the entire length of our lives, sexual beings. There is no way of being human without being male or female. It’s part of who we are, and so we need to think about what it means to live as a healthy MAN or a healthy WOMAN in all our relationships, in every season of life. And friend, in a world where the images and stories and sounds around you keep directing your focus towards the erotic, that’s a SERIOUS challenge.

But it’s a challenge you need to face.

You need to learn how to be friends with women without the glaring awareness of them as potential sex partners. You allude to struggling with masturbation, and I’m not really going to comment on that except to say that if porn is part of that struggle, it is making things exponentially worse for you. Porn hardwires the brain to see women and sex in an objectifying way, and with each participation in that body-brain experience, it puts more distance between you and the possibility of a healthy sexual relationship with a woman in the future.

However, even if porn is not part of the issue, it’s still a real challenge to learn to see women as whole, complete, made-in-the-image-of-God partners in life in a world which sees them as sexy bodies. You say you make friends easily but get shy when there’s a girl you’re interested in…  I strongly suspect that’s because all of a sudden you’re hyper aware of her as a potential sexual partner, and that distracts from you getting to know her as a person.

You need to learn how to be a guy who can talk to women, to listen to them and learn from them and work along side them and appreciate them as essential partners in life, and to be your full self in these relationships (not just a guy hoping to get a date). Are there opportunities for you to participate in group efforts where you work alongside women? Maybe serving in some capacity at church, or volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity project, or making sure you’re plugged into a small group that has both men and women talking about the big issues we face disciples of Jesus (and not just an accountability/confession group)? These kinds of scenarios are important: they shift the focus from the “small talk” of social meet-ups where the unspoken-but-desired-for-outcome is often romantic/sexual/dating interest; and instead have you working shoulder to shoulder with women.

If there are opportunities to laugh together, to get your hands dirty together on a project, be an environment where there is healthy hugging and touch. Doing these things might go a long way towards your relaxing around women and expanding your view of them… and in the process, you may well find yourself developing some new intimacy in friendships with the men and women around you… and maybe one day, one of those might lead to marriage and sex.

Your sexual feelings won’t be disappearing any time soon, but I do think there are ways you can pursue rewarding, affirming, healthy touch and intimacy in relationships without those needing to be sexual. Can I recommend Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship to you? He is a celibate gay Christian, which is not the struggle you’re facing, but his insights on deep, fulfilling relationships and stewarding our sexuality well while we’re celibate are really helpful and healthy. Even as a married, straight woman (and he is none of those things!); I’ve found a lot in his words to encourage me (as a woman, and inherently sexual being) to relate deeply and well to the men and women in the family of believers in a holy and wholly intimate way. Even once people are married, there may be seasons where sexual feelings can’t be expressed (due to illness or extended absences or childbearing or aging…), and so the question of learning to pursue healthy and holy intimacy in the face of pent of sexual tension is one all believers have to grapple with at some stage. You’re not alone in this. God knows us and will help us as we continue to ask Him for help in stewarding—rather than suppressing—our sexuality.

Blessings to you,

Bronwyn

 

 

The Fine Print on the Finest of Marriage Proposals

If you want to while away a couple of hours filled with laughter, tears, and OMG moments, search “marriage proposals” on YouTube. Here’s one that was a YEAR in the making:

Dear reader, our wedding proposal was nothing like that. In fact, we kinda decided to get married by accident. Or rather, we had a conversation late one night which got away from us and by the time we said goodbye at 2am or so, had talked about dates, location, and plans to meet one another’s families (we really hadn’t been dating long). The next day, we were both a little stunned: “Whoa. Wait. What WAS that? Are we… engaged?” We had effectively decided to get married, but there had been no declarations, or rings, or questions-asked-on-one-knee.

We decided to call that phase “pre-engaged”, and spent the next weeks talking with parents and looking at rings and imagining the possibilities. But the “proposal”—with ring and question and an official announcement to the world—was yet to happen at a later date.

One afternoon, it did. My boyfriend/beloved/pre-fiancè picked me up early so we could go walking before meeting friends for a birthday dinner. We drove five minutes from my house to the trail head of a walk along the slopes of the most beautiful mountain in the most beautiful city in the world.

This is the view from that walking trail:

The walk is called "The Pipe Track". I think the name is meant to throw tourists off the scent and keep it a local secret.

The pipe track runs along the contour path just below the sheer rock of this mountain, and above this set of beaches:

CPT Cape Town Camps Bay beach with Twelve Apostles b

So far, the scene is seeming pretty picturesque, right? (Just a regular afternoon walk for those blessed to live in Cape Town, folks) So we walked a while—maybe 45 mins or so—and came to a look out point with a bench. We stopped to catch our breath and sat down, taking in the sun slipping slowly out of the sky to the west, admiring the sparkle and relishing the breeze.

And then, without taking his eyes from the horizon, my dearest guy said: “So, you know that I’m a total sinner, right?”

Friends, I had no idea where the conversation was going. What on earth was he about to confess? 

He kept talking; reminding me that he makes mistakes and he fails and that although he tries to be a faithful friend and worker, he sometimes messes up. “I do love you,” he said, “but you know I’ll disappoint you.”

Still, I had no idea. 

I think I countered with some combination of “nobody’s perfect” and “we are forgiven all our sins” and “is there something you want to tell me?”

He paused. And then, turning to me, said this: “So, even knowing all this, are you sure you want to marry me?” I laughed. I said “of course!” I mean, after all, hadn’t we been talking about getting married for weeks already? If he was having second thoughts or doubts about my commitment, I wanted to put him at ease.

And you know what? I nearly goofed it. That “are you sure you want to marry me?” was the proposal. In case I had missed it (and I nearly had), a red velvet box had appeared in which sat nested a very, very sparkly ring. This was it: THIS was the proposal.

No “You are the most beautiful woman in the world and I can’t live without you.”

No “I love you more than life itself.”

No “Will you make me the happiest man in the world?”

No “I want to grow old with you.”

Instead, “So you know I’m a sinner… are you sure you want to marry me?”

What was I to do in the face of what seemed—certainly by YouTube standards—to be a colossal anticlimax of a proposal? Well, as Jane Eyre famously said:

Reader, I married him.

I’ve told the motley story of our engagement to many dating college students over the years: I’ve laughed and reminisced and loved the re-telling of it because, after all, it may not be Reality TV’s most fantastic story, but it is our story, and it is precious for that reason alone.

But over the years, as we have weathered more and more years of marriage, I look back on our engagement and marvel at the wisdom my then-pre-fiancè showed in his proposal. He knew from the get-go that marriage wasn’t about feeling-so-overwhelmed-by-love that all you could do was propose. He knew, and wanted to make I knew, that we were committing to loving each other as deeply flawed people: that marriage would be for better and for worse. In our heady days of imagining our future, it was easy to imagine the better part. He wanted to make sure I knew there would be days of worse. And that he would do his best to love me through those, and wanted to know if I’d do the same.

No one starts a building project without first doing a budget; and no king goes to war against another without first figuring out the relative strength of their troops, said Jesus. In the same way, people shouldn’t make commitments to Jesus without figuring out what’s involved. And, I daresay, they shouldn’t get engaged until they’ve taken a good hard look at the weaknesses and struggles in both themselves and their beloved and asked: “are you really sure you still want to do this?”

That’s wisdom. It doesn’t make for the best proposal videos, perhaps, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy engagement-aversary, my love.

Let’s Hear It For Hot, Married, Older-People Sex

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Sex. Sex. Sex. It’s everywhere: in song lyrics and on TV and at the forefront of a vast percentage of the adverts and marketing flooding our senses. It’s the bait for selling everything from juice to Jaguars, the goal for dating, the remedy for existential funks, and the climax (forgive me) of most every rom-com storyline. And if a brief survey of the most popular movies and music right now is to be believed, the people Having All The Sex are young, beautiful couples with off-the-charts chemistry.

Except for this: it’s just not true.

And, while I’m not sure exactly how to do this, I think we need to speak up for the hotness and satisfaction of married, older-people sex.

The need for this became clearer to me a few years ago, when we lived in a rental situated between a house of senior sorority girls on one side, and the college men’s water polo team on the other. With adjoining back yards and single-glazed windows, we were unintentionally privy to more than a couple of their late night conversations as they discussed life, the universe and everything with each other.

One night, my husband and I were awake with a baby-who-would-not-sleep, and through our closed bedroom window could still hear three of the girls out on their porch talking about the guys they were involved with. One of them talked about the guy she’d hooked up with over the summer: how she thought he liked him, how the sex seemed good enough, but she just wasn’t sure if she was a booty call or if it was going anywhere. Her friends sympathized: they had been in similar situations themselves. One suggested ways to spice things up. The other suggested she cut him loose: maybe there was someone else who she’d “click with” better? They felt stuck, but were taking a “chin up” attitude. After all, what if this was as good as it gets?

My heart went out to these girls: they’d had dinner with us just a week before, and they’d made polite conversation with us about their majors, their plans for the summer, and the cuteness of our kids. But what we didn’t talk about—couldn’t talk about—were any of the deep and painful things that they were struggling with after they’d said their polite goodbyes and returned home. What we didn’t know they might need to know, and what they didn’t know we could tell them, was some hope and help that there was a possibility out there for so-much-better from sex and relationships than they imagined.

Of course, it wasn’t their fault: who talks about our deep fears of rejection and our needs for relational acceptance and how that has been tied to our ability and willingness to offer sex with the older married couple next door? Not them. And, actually, not us. It came as a shock to me that same year to realize how much I’d been drinking the “sex is for the young, hot hook-ups” Kool-Aid, too. This realization came one afternoon when—five months pregnant and planting vegetables in the garden with my toddler—I found myself hiding behind the bushes when the water polo guys appeared in their back yard. They’d been working out, and were pumped with adrenaline and testosterone. It was a roasting hot afternoon, and with beers in hand, they peeled off their shirts and began to blast one another with the garden hose. I couldn’t cope: all my teenage angst and inadequacy-around-the-beautiful-people came rushing back at the sight of those five bronzed chests, and I took cover under the foliage of the pomegranate tree while they testosteroned (yup, I’m making that a word) in the afternoon sun: splash and beer and a whole lot of smack talk about the girls they were hoping to “hit” later that night.

All of a sudden, I had a moment of perspective. Why was I hiding in the bushes? Why was I embarrassed around their display of virility? “Stand up,” I told myself, “and get a grip of this situation. You have a life these guys WISH they had right now: you have an income and independence and a completed education. You can drink wine without having your buddy-with-ID needing to buy it for you, and your pregnant belly is actually a testimony to having a sex life. These guys may be talking big about how hot the sex is going to be, but the truth is that even the one with the most “conquests” to his name probably doesn’t have anything close to the quality or quantity of sex that we (and most happily married) couples do.”

I crawled out from under the tree and waved at the water polo guys.

Here’s the thing: we don’t have many voices around us speaking up in favor of the merits of long-term, committed, married sex and relationships – and there’s a ROAR of voices elsewhere shouting something different. But there’s a catch – the privacy of a married relationship, with its attendant modesty (in language and behavior) which protects that intimacy, means that those who know about the rich rewards of exclusive long-term marital intimacy, are the least likely to talk about it, or to share the stories about how much, much better sex gets over a lifetime of learning to love, laugh and enjoy each other.

So the challenge is this: how do we uphold and celebrate that sex and sexiness belong firmly–and wonderfully— in marriage, in a way that honors the privacy of our marriages and doesn’t get into the cringe-worthy territory of publicly calling out our spouses as “smoking hot“?

For one, I think there does need to be a little more open conversation in safe settings. My friend Emily Dixon wrote a book called Scandalous: Things Good Christian Girls Don’t Talk About and Probably Should, inviting Christian women to recover healthy, vital sexuality in their identity rather than allowing the topic to be smothered by shame. If there’s a world of unhealthy and damaging conversation about sex out there, we aren’t going to redeem the topic by staying silent – we need to start a new conversation.

Of course: books and book clubs are always my go-to ways to start conversation, so I should mention I recently read the first couple of books in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon: a series I found un-put-downable in its storytelling but which also deserved the caveats I’d heard about scenes with explicit sex and not-a-small-amount-of-violence (like Game of Thrones for women, I joked with a friend). However, I’ll say this for Outlander: the sex is very, very steamy, but all the good sex in the book happens between a married couple. This was one of the author’s intentions in writing the series: she wanted to tell a story of a marriage whose passion stood the test of time. With nine epic novels completed in the Jamie-and-Claire saga, Gabaldon has done that – told a tale of a couple whose intimacy and desire for each other in every aspect grew over a lifetime. I’m not defending that Outlander (or particularly the television miniseries version) is right for everyone – but I respect Gabaldon’s goals. Her novels, while fictional, tell the truth about something our world desperately needs to hear:

Let’s hear it for hot, married, older people sex.

hot married sex

Ask Me: How can I know if he’s the one? And are we too young to get married?

Am I too young to get married? How can I know if he's the one?

Dear Bronwyn,

My boyfriend and I are both 20, and have been dating for 4 years. We have been talking about getting married for a few months and I’m getting scared. I’m scared that he’s not the one for me because I don’t have that gut feeling and part of me is saying run away and that were both pretty young. I really want to be with him and wake up next to him. I’m worried I’m just in love with the idea of getting married and he’s convenient so I should just marry him. But we have a fuzzy electrical feeling when we kiss or touch and I don’t want to let that go. He says he knows I’m the one for him, but I just wish I had that feeling too. He’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a husband. I’ve prayed and asked God for a sign to let me know if hes the one for me. The first time He sent a shooting star. The second time I felt like He was telling me through particular songs that kept coming up on the radio. After that second time you would think “Okay, God, I get the message,” but I still can’t shake the gut feeling of wanting to run. Is that the devil at work? Does the Bible say anything about this? Please help.

From,

Dating but Doubting

Dear DbD,

I hear three questions in your letter: Are we too young to get married? How can I know if he’s the one? And, will God give me a sign that I’m making the right decision? I’ll try to touch on each of these:

Firstly, on the question of “how old is old enough to marry?”: A hundred years ago (and probably for centuries before that), a couple who were twenty and had been together for four years may well already have been married! It is a strange feature of our modern world that it has become normal to delay marriage for ten, even fifteen, years later than our ancestors did.

But there is still much to be said for marrying young. In her excellent article The Case for Getting Married Young, Karen Swallow Prior talks about the difference between seeing marriage as the cornerstone, rather than the capstone, of your adult life. I was one who married a little later, but am now in a position where I have a group of friends who are my age but many of them have been married ten years longer than we have (and have kids going to college already!!), because they married in their late teens and early twenties. When these friends of mine talk about their marriages, they talk about how they and their husbands had to grow up together: they figured out how to “adult” (as it now seems to be a verb) as a team… and they are the better for it.

But this is not the norm with most people in their early twenties. I hear more people talk about first wanting to reach certain career and financial milestones before thinking about marriage, and while this is the conventional wisdom of our age, I don’t think the Bible has anything to say about seeking first career and financial stability, and then marriage being added unto you. Certainly, those who delay marriage and land up making poor sexual choices as a result have not chosen well. (In fact, did you know that in the Westminster Catechism, in the discussion of ways in which the seventh commandment is infringed, they list “undue delay of marriage” as one? Qu 139 over here.)

The health and maturity of your relationship matters so much more than your age. I would encourage you to try to rely less on your feelings and more on the wisdom of your community in taking stock of whether you and your boyfriend’s relationship is healthy and mature enough to move towards marriage. Ask your parents, leaders around you at church, trusted friends, and people who have been married a while: ask them about their experiences, ask them what advice they’d have, and then ask them if they would help you to identify any red flags they might see: do you have patterns of co-dependency that you might not be aware of? how do you handle anger, disappointment, and conflicts of interest etc? Also, if you are seriously thinking about marriage, I would strongly encourage you to do pre-marital counseling. Take your time and take it seriously: pre-marital counseling doesn’t “solve” any issues up front, but it really does a lot to help you walk into marriage with your eyes wide open and your expectations adjusted towards reality. If you can—and this is gold—stay in relationship with those counselor’s and ask if you can check in with them every couple of months after you are married. That kind of mentoring makes the world of difference.

As to the question: “how can I know if he’s the one?” I’ve written about the idea of finding the “one” and how much we can trust the tingly feelings of dating chemistry here, so I won’t go into too much about that more. I do want to add this, though: that you are dating in a millennial climate where we all like to keep our options open, but the downside of that is that sometimes keeping all our options open means also watching them all go by without having taken any. The desire to optimize all our experiences—to find the best deal, or the perfect vacation destination,  or the dream school, or the perfect mate—leads us to the deluded belief that if we just do enough internet research, we will make the perfect decision and then life will be easy. But it is a delusion. And sometimes, wisdom says that we would be happiest if we picked the GOOD option and worked with that, rather than indefinitely delaying deciding because we’re waiting for the best.

I mention this just to express some sympathy for the cultural climate we live in: the fear we have of “making the wrong decision” and “settling for second best” is horribly amplified by the world around us; and it is undergirded by the false premise that the “best” decision (or “the one”) really is out there, and that if we would just find that one then we will all live happily ever after. But life is not like that, and no matter how wonderful you and your partner may be (or how long you wait), marriage is still one between sinners and you will have seasons of deep challenge and mutual refining… and in the process, grow together.

Now that’s not to say we should go to a dance and “take a partner by the hand and doh-se-doh into happily ever after” with the first available single guy. Obviously, we need more wisdom than that: finding someone who loves God, who loves you, with whom you can grow and serve together, and (I think this is a deal breaker), with whom you can laugh at both triumphs and disappointments, goes a long way towards making marriage smoother. You say in your letter “he’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a husband.” I think that’s a really encouraging start 🙂

Finally: will God give me a sign so I can be sure? Probably not. Will he give you wisdom if you ask? Yes. Will he give you guidance as you prayerfully try to figure this out? Yes. Will he make the decision for you? Usually no. Not unless you’re Gideon. But take heart, dear friend: just because God hasn’t put an appendix at the back of the Bible with the list of who you will marry (wouldn’t that be a trip?) doesn’t mean he isn’t leading, guiding, and providing, or that he won’t work in good and amazing ways through this process of questioning you’re going through. If I think back on the discernment process through my own dating and deciding-to-marry relationships: I felt so unsure at the time, and really wished God would just TELL ME WHAT TO DO ALREADY, but as I look back I can see his faithfulness in answering every one of my prayers, for being with me through the breakups, and in landing up where I have. I have ever confidence He has no less than abundant plans for flourishing for you, too.

All the best,

Bronwyn

Got a question you want to send my way? You can ask me anything here…

The first year of marriage

 

Why is the first year of marriage so hard?

“So, how’s married life?”

It was a question we were asked hundreds of times in that first year. It was a question that always left me feeling a little bereft as to what to say.

The truth is, our first year of marriage was hard. Very hard. Not because we’d made a mistake, not because I regretted the decision, not because I wanted out. Even though I was sure we’d chosen right and wanted in – it was still hard.

We may have been in love, but we hadn’t yet begun to learn how to love one another well. We hadn’t yet begun to learn that beyond the declarations of love and commitment comes the daily study of learning what your spouse likes, and deeper than that – how your spouse thinks.

I cried. A lot. Tears of frustration. Tears of pain. Tears of despair. Tears of martyrdom, spilled out on my pillow before sleep finally came: “Oh God, I promised to love him even if this means feeling this way fore-eh-eh-eh- (sob)-ver…zzzz”

There was no particular sin or problem that made it hard. It wasn’t that we were mismatched. It was more just that it was painful to figure out the changes. I think the most honest thing we were able to say about that first year was that it was “a big adjustment“. Here are some of the things that were hard for us to adjust:

It was hard to change our expectations of how time together was spent. When we were dating and engaged, our time together was spent “TOGETHER”, and then we went home to our respective houses and did our alone-time things alone. But once we were married, was time at home together time, or alone time? How did we figure that out? I expected marriage to feel more like an extended low-fuss date. I think he expected it more to feel like alone time, except with me in the house. It was painful for both of us to figure that out.

We suffered from decision-making fatigue. Before we were married, we had to decide on a few things together, and we figured we were pretty good at making those decisions. But once we were married, we discovered that every part of every day and every routine in every chore needed now to be decided on: we didn’t want to presume to do it “his” way or “my” way, so that meant having to have conversation after conversation about what “our” way was going to be. When should we eat dinner? what to eat for dinner? Who will do what prep and cooking for dinner? How long after dinner is it acceptable to wait before doing the dishes? Should washed dishes be dried and put away at once, or left to drip dry until morning? None of these questions was important, but much like the fatigue of a group of friends all trying to decide on a place to go for dinner and the conversation just goes and goes and goes because no-one wants to decide for the group, or the fatigue of a 4
-year olds’ “why”…. we were tired.

Another complicating factor was that it was hard to figure out our social obligations. While dating, I had a large circle of (mostly single) friends, with whom I spent about half the nights of the week. Once
married, what happened to those friendships? I wanted to keep those friendships and not be the friend-who-dropped-off-the-face-of-the-earth once she got married, but I couldn’t leave my hubby alone at home 3 nights a
week, and I couldn’t always just invite my girl friends to our house: they were my friends after all, and while they liked him they didn’t exactly want to bare their souls to my new hubby.

And so I did what all nice-girls-in-a-bind do: I cried. In private.

Would telling the truth about it being hard that first year have been understood? Would it have been seen as betrayal? Betrayal to my husband, or to the idealized notion of marriage? At the time it felt like it might be both.

And so one night, when an older, wiser friend asked: “So, how’s married life?”, and then followed it up immediately with, “It’s hard, isn’t it?”, I just about sobbed with relief. It was hard. It was such a relief to say it. And you know what? It got better. That first year wasn’t all terrible, but to be honest – it wasn’t all great.

I have friends who have had most wonderful first years of marriage. I’m so happy for them. But I just wanted to put in writing that it was not so with us. Just in case there’s anyone out there, whether in year 1 or year 4 or year 14, who feels this marriage gig is HARD and I-didn’t-expect-this and am-I-doing-something-wrong? and will-I-always-feel-like-this? and I-don’t-regret-this-but-I’m-still-crying-all-the-time…

Just in case that’s you, I wanted to say: “So how’s married life? It’s HARD, isn’t it?”

I know. We struggled through it, and we came through the stronger for it. You can too.

You might be interested in this post over at Start Marriage Right: Why we ditched the “young marrieds” groups

“Help, I’m jealous of my husband’s job”

I'm Jealous of my husband's job. Now what?

Dear Bronwyn,

I’m struggling with resentment about my husband’s frequent work trips. They’re often a week or more long, with mixed genders, and I struggle to keep my imagination under control. He is a loving husband and doesn’t seek out female colleagues as friends. He has told me this – and I trust him. Yet, when he is away, and I am left to normal life with young children, I can’t help but think he is off having a jolly time, making memories with everyone but me, and confiding in other people – I struggle with the idea of him having a “separate life” – a life where I, unless otherwise told, have no part of.

My husband does work hard to include me in his work life: I know more than many wives about what he does, who he works with, and he includes me where he can. It’s just when he goes away I become jaded and go into some kind of survival mode: I push away, resent, and think the worst. My husband is doing everything he can think of to help. My question is this: what can I do to combat these feelings?

Sincerely,

FOMO-Mama

Dear FOMama,
It sounds like there are a number of issues potentially at play here: wanting assurance about your husband’s affections, as well as some struggle with contentment and jealousy.
First: it sounds like you and your husband have a healthy marriage – you’re able to talk and are working hard to stay supportive and engaged in the other ones’ flourishing. That’s fantastic.
Having said that – travel for any extended period does put strains on a marriage. There are horrifying statistics about “the things that people get up to” on business trips, and so fears about sexual temptation and other excesses are not unwarranted. We have friends where the husband travels frequently and he requests that there be no TV in his hotel room wherever he travels (I’m sure the hotel staff *really* love this)… but it’s something he does for the sake of making sure there is no temptation there for him. If travel is a regular part of your husband’s job, I’m sure he has to think about ways to proactively protect your marriage while he’s away. That you can talk openly about this is important.
But I think this is really a deeper issue than a “can I trust my husband?” thing, since it seems you are more struggling with feeling left out/jealous of his opportunities, than really struggling with worry about his fidelity. I think that speaks more to a frustration about your current phase in life than specific jealousy about your husband. It’s his “freedom to go”, to stay out late if he wants to, to be ANYWHERE OTHER THAN HOME, to make friends etc, that shines a very bright light on some of the hardest things about motherhood… that being that life is just so. darn. continuous.
Remember when Fridays meant the end of the week? Ha, not so with moms.
Remember when weekends meant sleeping in? Not so with little ones.
Remember when eating out meant a meal free of issues? Not so with moms: either you’re wrangling people to just-sit-still at the table, or you’re bleeding from the nose with how much it costs to pay a babysitter. Tick tock. How long do we have?
Remember when someone asked you if you wanted to catch a movie, and you could say YES? Not anymore.
Remember when you had hobbies you liked to do after work? Not anymore: now there’s the carnage of cheerios and drool that comes after the kids are finally, finally asleep.
Remember when you used to do something and feel a sense of accomplishment that it was actually DONE? And sometimes people PAID you for it? Ha.
The life of a mom of small people is exhausting in physical and profoundly personal ways: for you work ALL DAY and it just gets undone by small people. What you tidy gets dumped out. What you clean gets smeared. What you fold gets worn. What you cook gets consumed, or worse yet – complained about and dumped on the floor.
Before I went on maternity leave, I supervised two interns. They came to visit me a few weeks after my eldest was born, and I was stunned to find I was insanely jealous of them describing the hum drum of making thousands of copies. I used to hate making copies, but all of a sudden I was crazy jealous of the fact that they had something to do which, at the end of their effort, would yield a VISIBLE PILE OF SOMETHING THAT HADN’T BEEN THERE BEFORE. Like real, genuine evidence of productivity. I was beside myself with jealousy. About stacks of colored paper.
And I felt SO pathetic realizing it. Because while my head told me *of course* it was worthwhile to be a Mom, I was still really grieving the loss of choices and efficiencies of my kid-free life, and when my husband worked late or went to a conference or my former intern made copies… I felt really crappy about my choice-less-ness and income-less-ness by comparison.
So how to get over that? Well, knowing what you’re dealing with helps… because maybe it means that what you need is not for your husband to travel less or have less fun when he does… but for you two to talk about what you might need to make space for you to have friends, or to take up a project that is not related to your kids. Would joining a book club help? Or an exercise class? When he’s home, would it help to have some “me time” scheduled in when you can take a couple of hours and go and enjoy brunch with a friend? I know these seem like small things, but I realized that adding few little things like that made the world of difference to me over time. I had become resentful that I could never take a nap. That I never got to eat hot food. That I wanted to talk to a friend somewhere other than in my house and holding a baby.
I hope I am not projecting my own experiences too much into your question here, but it does sound like you have two things going on:
1) wanting to be assured that you are your husband’s priority (and he’s working hard to show you that you are more important than his career), and
2) needing to be affirmed that you are still a PERSON, not just a domestic placeholder, and you need a work/rest/recreation balance, too. With the healthy sounding conversation that it sounds like you and your husband are able to have – maybe you could talk with him not so much about “how can I quash the feelings of jealousy?”, but “what is my jealousy telling me here?” Listen to what your jealousy is telling you about what you are needing to change in your own life, and maybe that will help you both to figure out some next steps.

All the best,

Bronwyn

 

Image Credit: Mish Sukharev – Revtank (Flickr Creative Commons), edited using Canva by moi.