We were four months into our first year of marriage, and slogging through freshman fights. “My dad always washed my car,” my new wife gently-but-firmly decreed. “and he never made me go to any icky gas stations, either, so…”
Where was this coming from? I felt like this young lady had come up with some unrealistic expectations. I grew up in a big, poor, bootstrap-pulling-up family. We had to do for ourselves. Besides, no one had ever suggested to me that a wife would want anything more than a strong, steady, independent bestie. With benefits, of course. So what was this “father” stuff she was bringing up?
Is being a husband something like being a father? I asked in frustration. (In writing. In my private journal. A man wants to stay alive, after all.)
There are times when I feel like my wife wants me to step in and fill her father’s shoes - buying her whatever she wants, and rocking her to sleep at night. I suppose if I’d had a good mother, I would expect Emily to fulfill aspects of a mother’s role, too…whatever that is…people only ever mention the masculine attachment to “Mother’s cooking.” I do want to be nurtured, which I guess is a mother’s role until a wife steps in…and a wife wants to be protected and provided for, which was her dad’s role until I stepped in.
A couple of years later, with a new little one in my arms, I mused that between marriage and parenting, parenting might actually be the easy part. Love for a child comes naturally, after all. It’s impossibly tenacious and braggy and blind. Luke 17:33 says, “Whoever releases his life will find it.” Annie Dillard and others have said the same about writing; you’ll feel like holding something back for later, they’ve warned me warmly, but don’t do it. Pour all you have onto the page today, and trust that tomorrow there will be more…
And this is just how we love our kids. Never do we hold back an outburst of “I love you, bud!” or “Great job, sweetheart!” We never hold a grudge. We always kiss them goodnight, no matter how bad they’ve been. We clean up their messes, even though we’re exhausted. We cook their meals. We pay their way. And never do we worry that they might not pay us back for all our love. Instead we watch them like mama hens and daddy bullfrogs, asking,
What brings them joy?
What strengthens them?
What makes them feel heard and valued?
And how do these things point to how they best receive love?
Love for a spouse, on the other hand, seems to comes with so many conditions. Promises were spoken. Arrangements and compromises have been made. He should grow up a little. And she should know better. He’s a grown man, for cryin’ out loud! And she’s just inconsiderate. Expectations are disappointed, one after another. Chores are divided. Each party has to pull their weight. Payback and parity become central, and soon enough all we can see is the imaginary scale that weighs “how much time he spends with the guys,” versus “how much money she’s spending on new clothes and makeup.”
But what if… we could love our spouses…like we love our children? What if loving a child really is the easy stuff…and being an ideal spouse is indeed something akin to being a parent? What if, having learned to love a child, loving a spouse became…more like the easy part? Could you love your spouse 100% today - totally free of expectations - and trust that tomorrow will arrive in time, with a new, fresh bundle of love to share?
Some years ago, Papa gave me these truths about sincere love in relationship:
"Lay down your rights," he said wisely, "and count no debts.
Love with open hands. Cover your loved one in prayer.”
Finally I see the natural application: this is how we love our children! We forfeit our rights to self and autonomy, forgiving their many debts, raising them to greater and greater freedom, and praying endless, heartfelt prayers for their well-being and safety.
Now consider this: Papa loves us perfectly. He calls us his children. He loves us like children, but treats us like grownups. I think…I think…I think this could be the way. This could be how we preserve life in our marriages. This could be our picture of perfect love.
And I dare believe we can learn to love our spouses this way.
We can stop asking, “When will he grow up??” and ask rather, “How does he grow?”
We can stop wondering “Why doesn’t she make any sense?!” and begin to marvel at how uniquely and beautifully she engages the world.
We can even lay down bitter considerations of “How much good I do for this family!!” instead wondering, “In the time I still have here, how much good can I do for this family?”
We can forget what they owe us.
We can let them live.
We can love them like children,
Open our hands,
Lay down our rights,
And love them like Jesus does.