Publication Information: McMillion, C. P. (2013, Jul. / Aug.). A Sharp Right Turn. Christian Woman Magazine, 29(4), 24-27.
The counselor laced his fingers together and gazed at me thoughtfully, “Marrying at your age is like making a sharp right turn at fifty-two miles per hour.”
I had to hand it to him. He nailed it. After being single all of my adult life, I was just a few weeks away from that Really Big Step, and I wavered between joyful anticipation and absolute panic. I was terrified of not being able to negotiate that sharp turn and ending up in a ditch with my little wheels spinning in the air. I was afraid of losing my independence, afraid of change, and uncertain of my ability to be a good partner. I had no road map for this terrain, and I was petrified of exchanging the safety of my bumper car for the wide-open highway.
Through the years, of course there had been times of longing to be married to just the Right Person. I had romantic notions of a soul-mate relationship in which the Right Person and I are overwhelmingly happy every single day, on the same wavelength about any number of issues, always preferring each other’s company to anyone else’s, instinctively understanding each other’s emotions, laughing at the same jokes, processing events in exactly the same ways, enjoying the same books and movies, sharing the same opinions, and so close that we could read perfectly each other’s minds. The Right Person sounds like a great guy, right?
I made the mistake of mentioning my expectations to a licensed counselor once. She simply dropped her head onto her folded arms and howled with laughter, which I thought was just the teensiest bit unprofessional of her.
In my defense, there were often years between men I was interested in, so there had been no pressing reason to reevaluate my slightly unrealistic ideas. I just assumed that if I met the Right Person, the connection would be immediate, obvious, consistent, and, well, electrifying. Picture running through a grassy meadow toward the soul-mate you had spied from afar. Yeah, that. I’m not sure how a person gets to my age with such naïve notions, but I’m living proof that it is indeed possible.
I was in my fifties and finally at a good place in my life. I was part of a close-knit singles group at church and an even closer group of girlfriends with whom I shared laughter, connectedness, and a sense of adventure. I loved my job; it was satisfying and gave me lots of opportunities for creativity and innovation. And thanks to the miracle of adoption, I was also a mom. I was on a roll, all right. I knew how to have a fulfilling and productive life all on my own.
But then an alien spaceship landed on my home planet and out stepped this tall, quiet guy named Phil who had lost his wife to cancer. Who was he, and where had he come from anyway?
The short answer is that he and I had both lived in Memphis for many years. He taught Old Testament at Harding School of Theology and, although we had many friends in common and our sons were well-acquainted, our paths had never really crossed. But then one day they did: first the chance meeting (or was that the twinkling in God’s eye?), then the Facebook chats, and finally the fateful Super Bowl party at my house. He lingered after the others had gone, and I, not knowing quite what to do with this unexpected turn of events, handed him a broom and beat a quick retreat to the kitchen. He swept the entire dining room floor, rolled up his sleeves to wash the dishes, and hung around after the last plate had been dried and put away. By then I was practically hyperventilating.
My 14-year-old son must have read my mind when I went in to say good night. “Who is that guy?” he wanted to know, “And why is he still here?”
Phil and I began spending time together, slowly at first, then with increasing frequency. For the record, I was not prepared for this. Although I shared strong emotional ties to my girlfriends, we mainly communicated by email or text, rarely talked on the phone, and only spent an occasional evening together. I was accustomed to having my own space and plenty of it. I distinctly remember once, early on, when Phil suggested that he would like to see me the next evening as well. I was mystified: What for? I wondered. I just saw you tonight!
But I was also intrigued, and I didn’t say no. Phil had not dated anyone in forty years and was not inclined to play teenage mind games. Over many cups of tea and many long walks around my neighborhood in the twilight hours, we began to form a bond. But I did not lose myself in Phil, and he did not occupy all of my thoughts. He wasn’t mysterious or enigmatic; he wasn’t dashing, bold, or particularly romantic. He was just himself: steady, kind, competent, forgiving, hard-working, considerate, wise, and genuine. He knew how to listen, he answered questions thoughtfully, and he helped me learn how to work through issues rather than avoid them. He treated my confidences and confessions with tender acceptance. He was a man who could be trusted.
I don’t know what I expected to feel, but I had long since learned that wild roller-coaster emotions were suspect at best. Too many crash-and-burn experiences had taught me that. I knew too that I didn’t feel the giddy excitement I had at 16 or the all-consuming adoration experienced at 21 or the high drama I had been addicted to at 28. Did I even know how to care about another person? What was I “supposed” to feel? Was I even capable of a long-term relationship? Phil and I were clearly moving in the direction of permanence, but I was frightened out of my mind at the prospect. I didn’t know if I could do it.
I had seen many marriages fail while others succeeded, but I had no concept of why the outcomes were so different. I had been around married people, of course, but had always been on the outside looking in. And from the outside, all but the most “in-crisis” unions looked happy. It was confusing and frightening to know that every couple started their marriage with the best of intentions and that only half of them survived the first five years.
In addition, much of what I read and heard from others was fraught with contradiction. Some said that relationships were hard work. Others declared that with the right person, marriage was easy and could not be called ‘work’ at all. Some claimed that God had brought them together; others were less certain, but no less committed. Some advised that one should pay attention to small annoyances because they would become major irritants later on; others held that, since no one is perfect, it is important to overlook the small stuff. Conflicting counsel, for sure.
The only thing I know to do when I face life challenges is to turn to God for wisdom. Phil and I both spent a lot of time, individually and together, in prayer. In addition, we talked long and deeply with each other, participated in premarital counseling, and discussed our relationship with friends whose wisdom we valued.
Phil and I had many commonalities. We were both mature in years. Neither of us was desperate to be in a relationship. We were both adoptive parents. We were frugal, similar in temperament, quiet, literary, and interested in the arts. I loved to pick his brain about Old Testament history, archaeology, and theology. I loved to hear about his trips to Jerusalem and his year in Berlin. He enjoyed my sense of humor and was not at all put off by my similarities to the obsessive-compulsive TV character, Adrian Monk.
For me, at least, the decision to marry was made more with the head than with the heart. Maybe for the first time in my life, I was not so blinded by emotions that I could not think clearly. It was as though God were saying: “Cindy, if you want to remain single, that is fine. I will be with you as I always have. But if you want to be married, this is the man I have chosen for you.”
I decided that I did, and when Phil asked, the answer was “Yes.”
As an intensely private person, I blanched at the idea of a church wedding, but it seemed to be the only option as we listed the names of all those we wanted to invite. When I reserved the church chapel, however, I was so traumatized at the attention and exuberance of the office staff that Phil had to schedule an emergency session for me with our counselor. In the end, we were married in a friend’s living room, surrounded by people we loved. On that Friday evening in mid-July, we recited these vows to each other:
I (Cindy / Phil) commit myself to you, (Phil / Cindy). I pledge to love, honor, encourage, and support you through all the days of our walk together. When the way becomes difficult, I promise to stand by you and uplift you, so that through our union we can accomplish more than we could alone. I promise to affirm you, to show my appreciation for you, and to treat you with kindness, compassion, and respect. I promise to work at our relationship and always make you a priority in my life. I promise to encourage you not only as my (husband / wife), but as my (brother / sister) in Christ. I will be your faithful friend and will serve beside you in whatever ministries God sets before us. With the help of our Father who loves us more than we can think or imagine, I pledge to be the best partner that I can be. This is my promise to you.
Our first year together was marked by evidences of my identity crisis. Although I gladly took Phil’s last name when we married, I had trouble remembering to introduce myself that way or to sign my name correctly. It felt odd to be called something other than the name I had used all of my life.
I had not lived with another adult since the roommate days of my twenties, so having another person around, especially one of the male persuasion, took some getting used to. I remember lying in bed reading one evening when I was suddenly shocked by the sight of Phil shaving. “There’s a man in my bathroom!” I thought to myself. Clearly, I was not prepared for even simple changes.
In November of our first year together, we spent a long weekend in a small community where Phil had been invited to lecture on Biblical archaeology. At that point, the concepts of “husband” and “marriage” were still brand new to me. I was neither comfortable in my new role nor accustomed to drawing attention, so when the final prayer thanked God for “Brother McMilligan and his good wife, Sister McMilligan”, I thought I was going to pass out. The image that flashed through my mind was a cross between June Cleaver in a pillbox hat and white gloves and the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live. Phil laughed about it later, telling me that he could feel my body go completely stiff beside him.
We have been together almost three years now. That’s not a long time, I realize, but I am beginning to understand that just as every person is different, so is every marriage. There was and is no perfection on this earth. There is no single secret that those on the “outside” must learn before they are capable of living successfully on the “inside.” Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina, begins like this: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I don’t know that I agree. I think that all families are happy and unhappy in their own unique ways and that no family is happy unless it decides to be. Happiness has much more to do with commitment than with circumstance.
So often, we approach relationships with a fantasy mindset. We think if our realities don’t match up to our dreams, we are destined to misery. We buy into the media’s messages about how we should interact, how we should feel, and how we should communicate with each other. Is it realistic to compare our lives to a scriptwriter’s inventions? What does it do to us when we feast on those messages and then recognize that our partners (and ourselves) don’t quite embody everything we have envisioned?
Our counselor said, “You don’t find your soul-mate. You choose wisely and grow your soul-mate.”
Fixating on how we imagine perfection to look only serves to make us discontent. The hard truth is that no person and no couple is a perfect “10.” Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage, points to a passage in the New Testament book of James that declares, We all stumble in many ways. Thomas asserts that if we think we have to be in a perfect marriage to be content, we should be prepared to change partners every two or three years. This husband may have Flaw A, but that husband will have Flaw B. Thomas asserts that marriage is where we live out our commitment to God. It is the context in which he trains us in godliness, just as singleness is the context before we say, “I do.”
In the years I spent as a single person, there were challenging times, joyful times, sad times, and lonely times. Overall, I was content and satisfied with my life, but I was not happy every single day. That would be completely unrealistic. The same is true now that I am married. I am still the same person. One status is not inherently “better” than another. Both singleness and marriage can be fulfilling paths if one does not impose impossible expectations on them.
Our counselor said that I would have to learn new gears, and that has been true. I have always been very independent, and I was afraid of losing that when I got married. I didn’t want to become a sheltered, fearful woman who relied helplessly on her husband to take care of her, who was afraid to spend the night alone, who wrung her hands in despair when the car wouldn’t start or when there was a spider in the bathtub or when the toilet overflowed. I was not like that at all. I knew the numbers of good mechanics and good plumbers, and I knew how to spray some serious Raid if I had to. Now I am learning what interdependence means. I am capable of everything I was before, but now I am learning to share responsibilities. That is not weakness, as I once thought; it is strength. Two can lighten each other’s load.
Marriage has taught me to deal with my emotions differently. When I was single, I simply came home and shut out the world when I was feeling irritable and selfish and mean. Since the advent of Phil, I try to behave with kindness and respect toward him even on my worst days. After all, this is his marriage too.
I was aware of my faults when I was single, but I see them even more clearly now because their impact on my husband is so immediate. When I am short with him, it matters. When I insist on my own way, he feels the effects. When I thoughtlessly make a unilateral decision, the consequences affect us both.
I always considered myself a good listener, but now I am learning to be deliberate about affirming and encouraging my husband. The support I give him every day makes a difference. Even when we disagree, I am learning how to take his point of view into account.
Alone, I had only my own preferences to consider when I planned vacations, car-shopped, or chose which TV shows to watch. Now it’s important to make room for Phil’s preferences. He follows his favorite teams during basketball season, but it stresses me out to watch intensely competitive sports. So he catches a game while I read a good book or go down to Beale Street to take photographs. We enjoy being together, but we also need time apart. In giving each other space and encouraging each other’s separate interests, we move toward striking a healthy balance.
Learn new gears, the counselor advised.
Slowly, by stops and starts, I am making progress. I am beginning to get a notion of how important humility, patience, forgiveness, and grace are in a marriage. I desire to love my husband the way God wants him to be loved, and I am starting to see that love is an action and not just a feeling. As I travel down each valley and top each hill, I glimpse more clearly what it takes to be a good partner in life. I learn from others who are further along on the journey, and I try to pay attention to the road signs.
Marriage is not any harder or any easier than being single. It is just different. It requires mastering new gears without forgetting the old ones. Single or married, I know that I cannot negotiate any of life’s sharp turns without the strength and guidance that come from God.
I rely heavily on these words from the book of Isaiah, chapter 41, verse 13:
I am the Lord, your God,
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, “Do not fear;
I will help you.”