Thirteen years ago, I married my best friend...
I see sentiments like this often on Facebook. I've probably even posted that at some point. Who knows? With today being our 13th anniversary, I was thinking about that statement again. It has troubled me a lot lately. It seems to minimize what actually occurred in that wedding ceremony. I didn't just marry my best friend, did I? Is that really what Heather is? Is that all she is? It just didn't sit well with me. [Aside: If you are one of the myriad of people who posted that in good conscience, I apologize for what is going to happen here. I am certainly not doubting your sincerity or love of your spouse. But I have issues I need to work out, apparently in public. So I wage into the fray.]
I never used to believe this, but I have a lot of friends. Facebook proudly proclaims that I have exactly seven hundred and thirty-seven (maybe a few less after this post). And, if I am to believe the helpful suggestions Facebook tosses up on the side, I am neglecting quite a few more friends. Going beyond the superficial Facebook definition, I actually do have a lot of friends. Some of them are good friends; some are great friends. I would even say that you could make a legitimate argument for about a dozen people for the the position of best friend. Is Heather my friend? Sure. She is my Facebook friend (since we do not and never will share an account). She follows me on Twitter - something only true friends and Russian spammers do. Is she my best friend? I don't know.
When I think of my best friend, I immediately think back to elementary school at The King's Academy in bustling West Palm Beach. Matt Sharp was my first best friend. He left the school after first grade and Nathan Wright became my new best friend. That title would be passed to others depending on my mood, location, and interaction with that person. When I left TKA for a year a Belvedere Elementary (Go Belvedere Bees! Sting on!!!), Nathan wasn't my friend as much because I rarely saw him. I still liked him, but we didn't see each other every day. So I wandered on to Willie Prince. Then I went back to Nathan in sixth grade. That is what I think of when I think of that term. It is a flexible position, like first place in the BCS rankings. I think of Ellis Mitchell, Matt Brice, Mitchell Wunsh, Tim Shields, Allen Turner, Toney Sauls, Eddie Gilley, Greg Ramer, Rick Estes, Nik Whitener, Charles Wise, and Randy Gillis. I find myself saying things like, "Well obviously Heather is my best friend. As far as friend friends go..." Should she be assigned to a position with such high turnover?
I think part of the problem over our marriage is actually that I did see her that way. We were buddies. We talked and had fun. I made her laugh. I was proud of her. We supported each other. We cared for each other. It was great. I am a good friend to my friends. I would think most of them would agree with that (except, maybe, Greg Ramer who I have spent most of our friendship tormenting). I am loving and generous and thoughtful. I like to go to lunch and eat burgers or pizza or BBQ. I am a good storyteller and conversationalist. I love movies and love talking about them. I have pretty well thought out opinions on stuff. I have a fantasy football league. All the good friend stuff. But being a good friend didn't make me a good husband. In fact, it made me a pretty crappy one.
The last year of our marriage has been the most trying, stressful, difficult, and beautiful of our lives. Since our anniversary last year, we have reached the most desperate point we ever reached. We also reached the most wonderful point we ever reached. We went through seven months of couples counseling, as well as individual counseling for me. We decided to move hundreds of miles away from our hometown to a new start in a new city. We left our amazing church, our incredible friends, our loving families to a city where we didn't even know where to buy groceries. Heather graduated med school. We bought our first house. And we had our youngest child get ready to start kindergarten while our oldest got ready for middle school. I think back to where I was last August and I don't even feel like the same person. Part of it had to do with this very issue. For the first time in my life, I finally have begun to understand what it means to love my wife - the responsibilities, the joys, the heartaches. And it has changed everything.
There is obviously a clear distinction between husband/wife and friend. Guys are well aware of this, which is why they so desperately avoid the Friend Zone with girls and dodge the "friend" label. The worst thing that they can hear from a girl they are interested in is, "You are such a good friend." I used to call it the f-word when I was single. "Then she dropped the f-word on me. 'You are my friend. I don't want to mess this up.'" Friends aren't husband material. They are guys you rely on until you find the guy to marry. The Bible talks about the importance of friends. They sharpen us. They keep us on the right track and give us wise counsel. Jesus had friends. He valued them. Jesus even taught that there is no greater love than laying down your life for a friend. The concept of laying our lives down for each other is very familiar. We hear it in the Bible and often use it as a demonstration of how deep our friendships are. "I would die for that guy and he would die for me." It is a noble proposal - to be willing to die for someone.
When we come to how husbands should treat our wives, this sentiment pops up again. Ephesians 5 contains the instructions for how spouses should treat each other [A separate entry than for how to treat friends and acquaintances, just to remind you.] I've heard dozens of sermons about how a husband should love his wife like Christ loved the Church, willing to lay His life down for her. This appeals to the most basic heroic element of a man. Die defending the people he loves. Isn't this the heart of epic hero? Or the modern superhero? The willingness to give up everything, including his or her own life? Jack died for Rose on the The Titanic. Kyle Reese died for Sarah Connor and their unborn child in The Terminator. Katniss was willing to die for her sister in The Hunger Games. Ummm, wait. This isn't just guys dying for their beloved any more. That circle keeps expanding. Jack Shepherd will die for everyone on The Island. Batman is willing to die a little bit every night to protect his city. Tony Stark is willing to die to save the Earth. In some ways, it is a little easier to die in a blaze of glory. You get honored and don't have to clean up the aftermath.
I would encourage you to look a little closer at Ephesians 5. I have. I've read several translations of it (NIV, ESV, NASB, KJV, Holman). Ephesians 5:25 actually says, "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..." That phrase is in every single version. Gave himself up for her. Looking at what that word means, I was shocked. The word "gave" is paradidomi and it is used 119 times. The most times it is used to mean "betray," followed by "delivered to," "handed over to," "entrusted to," and "surrendered." It doesn't necessarily mean die. In fact, it never is used to directly mean die. It almost exclusively means an act of turning over someone to another (mostly in a negative context). It is saying, "Husbands, hand over your being to your wife, if she is going to treat you well or not." We are surrender ourselves to them.
Now, I've heard a lot of things about friendship. But I've never heard that as how we should treat friends. I've also heard a lot of things about how husbands should treat their wives. And I have rarely heard that. Surrender ourselves? That isn't manly. That isn't being in charge. Surrendering is the opposite over leading. It is losing. Why are we supposed to do that? The passage tells why. We are supposed to love our wives like our own bodies - nourishing her and cherishing her and helping her to become the person God intended her to be. And we do that through following the model of Christ with the Church. He served. He led by being a servant. It was not about having His needs met. It was about meeting their needs. That is the model for husbands. Service. Sacrifice. Surrender.
That is what I began to discover. It isn't about trying to do things to make Heather like me. It isn't about working hard so that she will tell me I am good enough. It isn't about changing so she will do what I want. It isn't about doing something so I can play even steven and get something back. It isn't about showing how tough or strong I am by being loud or aggressive or dominating. It is about serving her and cherishing her. It is having a heart only for her and no other. It is putting my desires on the shelf and meeting her needs. It is being tender and caring and sensitive. It is being strong by being controlled and determined and reliable.
I have found myself wanting to do things that before I formerly would have shied away from. It has been easy to hide behind my rheumatoid arthritis over the years. Yes, it was painful and debilitating. But I didn't always fight it as hard as I could have. This last move, I didn't let myself give in so easily. I got up and worked. If I hurt too much, I stopped. If I couldn't keep going late into the night, I rested. But I worked hard. What happened? It was the easiest move we've ever had (and we've had a lot in 13 years). Were more organized and done earlier. The transition was smoother. And this was me doing all the things "I wasn't good at" before. Since we have been in our new home, I have tried to keep that drive up. I fix things when they break. I keep up with the house better than I ever had. I even have kept up with the yard - something I haven't done since my RA flare up in 2003. I had never owned or used a weed whacker before. But I have one now. Sure, the first time I used it I destroyed a plant that the previous owners had planted to wrap around the mailbox . . . and a sewage pipe plug . . . and three outdoor yard lights . . . and several grass patches. But I did it. I put together all of our furniture. I have kept up with all of our bills and created a budget for us - something that I had never even come close to doing before. I bought all the kids' school supplies, even Natalie's uniforms, by myself on tax-free weekend. And I didn't do it and then present my back for a quick pat. I did them because I was supposed to do them. I did them to minister to my wife.
I don't yell much anymore. If I do raise my voice, it is a quick short burst to stop something the kids are doing wrong. There is no explosion. There is no meltdown. I don't yell at Heather. I don't bully her in arguments or discussions. I try to listen to what she is saying and feeling. I try to encourage her and be a part of her work life. I have established relationships with her attending doctors, fellow residents, and their significant others. I am pursuing her heart. I am meeting her needs and the needs of our family. I am not doing it because Heather has always wanted to be a doctor. I am doing it because God built her for this so that she can change her world. She is incredible and brilliant. She already has skills that her attending doctors say veteran doctors don't have. She is already beginning pulmonology research and starting projects on how to help kids keep up with their cystic fibrosis. I told her the other day that she could make a discovery that changes how millions of kids suffering with CF will live.
You may be sitting there and thinking, "Well whoopty freaking doo. You're doing what you should have been doing. You want a cookie?" If you are thinking that, yes I do want a cookie. Not for what I'm doing - I just like cookies. Especially chocolate chip. Also, shame on you if you are thinking that. It is a big deal. Making a switch in my mindset was not easy. It took a lot of therapy, a lot of hard work. We both fought and suffered to reach this point. It wasn't easy at all. I didn't have the example of a father who loved his wife to model myself after. I had heard so many different things about how a man should treat his wife, and most of them sounded wrong somehow. I had a hard time even understanding what loving someone looked like. For so long, I believed that what you did determined if you were loved. Love could be withheld if things weren't done right. That puts an unbelievable weight on a person, trying to do everything right. Or at least appearing to do everything right. When you are focusing so much on that, you can't focus on meeting someone else's needs too well - unless by meeting those needs helps you to stay in that person's good graces. It is warped and twisted and sick. That is what I've left. And I don't miss it at all. Sure, I still wrestle with things and mess up more than I'd like. But the general goal is to do the right thing.
That's why this anniversary, possibly for the first time, I truly celebrate what this day signifies. It is more than the day I turned my best friend into my wife. It is more than the day I got a great roommate. It is the day the anniversary of the day I became Heather's husband and she became my wife. It is the day that I was entrusted with a precious gift. It is the day that I surrendered myself to Heather. It is the day that God allowed me to be a part of Heather's journey towards Him. I only wish that it didn't take so long for me start doing my job. Heather, I truly love you. And I am so glad to be married to you. You are precious to me and I will continue to keep pursuing your heart from now until the day I die. I'm sorry if I am still learning. I'm sorry it took so long. You are my friend, my wife, my beloved. And I'm the most fortunate man around.