One Layer at a Time

“I’m not dating anyone,” my friend wrote.  “Right now I’m traveling and doing things on my own.”

Mostly, I’m peeling the onion.”

In that one phrase, I’m peeling the onion, he catapulted me several years into the past, to the strange and dark days of life after divorce.  There wasn’t much to do but peel layers and cry.

The end of a marriage is both a uniquely intense, poignant event and a very long process.  It starts before anyone files papers, and it goes on for a long time after a judge decides the legal relationship is dissolved.  Building and sustaining a healthy, long-term relationship means being willing to work on yourself, not just before marriage but all of the time.

All of the time.

It’s maddening to hear,”Marriage is hard work.”  What does that even mean?  I’ve never found it helpful because it could mean anything and nothing.  It’s usually said by people who have been married long enough to know what it takes but who also don’t really want to talk about it.  If you actually tell someone what you mean when you say, “Marriage is hard work,” you will need to reveal every human weakness you’ve brought to the table, and not many people want to sign up for that.

It’s a shame, though, because it would help to know that successfully married people aren’t necessarily people who are better than you are as a human being.  They may just have a higher tolerance for vulnerability and humility than you do.  Which, come to think of it, may in fact mean they are better people.

Whittling it down to a specific definition, I’ve learned it means we are crazy to try to bring ourselves to a life with another person if we aren’t willing to work every day to better know, understand, and share ourselves.  This is a cycle of vulnerability and strength requiring endurance, humility, and complete devotion to purpose.

For me it has also required wine, naps, and the occasional long walk.

The first time I was married I was very young.  That is no excuse for failure, as there are lots of people who marry in their early twenties and have spectacular success as spouses for decades.  I was not one of those people, and I suspect that one of the many reasons is I thought I knew a lot of things that I simply didn’t actually know.  I remember acting with complete conviction on multiple occasions when in hindsight I was just repeating ideas because someone else had told me they were true.  I don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but I say now with confidence that I can’t put someone else’s tires on my marriage vehicle.

They look wrong and the ride is wobbly.

My husband and I have been through some very difficult times, both before and after we were married to each other.  One of the things we know is that it’s never just about waiting for the other person to pull their act together — this is our act.

We pull it apart individually, and we pull it together as a team.

One layer at a time.

10 thoughts on “One Layer at a Time

  1. Beautiful post, Elizabeth! What a great way to interpret relationships. I’m still “peeling back the onion” on myself. That’s why I have chosen not to marry anyone thus far in my life. I know I still have some self-discovery left before I’m ready to settle into working on relationships.

    • Thank you for such kind words. Not that I have advice, but if I did (wink wink) I’d say just remember to make that self-discovery life long learning. Never be finished. And if you do marry, be sure to share what you learn about yourself with your partner. Even better, be sure anyone you decide to be partners with is someone you feel comfortable sharing yourself with as fully as possible.

  2. Wonderful post, Elizabeth! “Peeling the onion” certainly resonates with me, both through my divorce and in my marriage now. The “peeling” process can be constructive or destructive, depending on how you go about it. Your post says that you’re able to look inside yourself with clarity and compassion. That’s darned hard to do. Good for you!

    • You’ll notice there is no mention of how long that took to get going…..and it is only getting going. I think it has to be never-ending. Stay tuned, tomorrow’s post is a follow up to this one. 🙂 Thank you for your comment.

  3. Elizabeth, sometimes that onion gets peeled back in chunks and the wounds weep, even if you’ve done it yourself.
    I’ve been in those shoes – even having married “later” in life, and a second (happy) marriage even later. Even happy means working on both sides, and a willingness to understand each other’s flaws, work with them, and change together, while not compromising the core of who you are.
    That’s where I think many go wrong – they forget who they are inside at the core.

    • Missy, I am in complete agreement with you. If I have said anything that suggests otherwise, I need to correct it.

      I’m going to post on this theme again this week. I hope you will keep reading and commenting. You bring up an excellent point that I do not address here, and that is the very painful reasons people are often not able to make themselves available to their partners, even when they wish they could.

  4. Another thought-provoking post. Sometimes I can’t keep up with your blog the way I’d like because I need to read it when there is time and space to think about things. Thanks for having something out there for me to think about, though!

  5. Thanks for your thoughts on marriage. I will have been married to the same man for 30 years this year. I have done a lot of thinking about how and why we have made it this far, and it is not because we are better people than anyone. When I married at 24 years old, I was marrying not only the man but the whole ideal of marriage, which of course I had no real idea about. We have had many rough patches (that honestly, seemed to come at the “sevens”, but only once did I seriously consider walking out the door. With two young children at the time and no job, I stayed, and we worked on some things together. I do believe a good part of what makes our marriage long-lasting is that my husband sits on the pew with me most every Sunday. And that’s not true for some women I know. The fact that he is there has not kept us from having some serious and hurtful times, but we both believe that our paths collided because God wanted them to all those years ago. And so when difficulty comes, we try to work through it with our spiritual core in mind.

    When I think of the layers that are the each of us, when we began to peel them back all those years ago when we met, so many of them were similar. As our years increased, the layers held more closely to the core of us — which now that we are deep inside them — are very different indeed. Marriage is hard (yes, I’m one of those), the hardest thing I have ever done, and on most days I don’t think I work hard enough at it. My husband has found ways to ignore (and sometimes celebrate) the differences between us, and I have learned the same.

    My parents will have been married 60 years next year. My grandparents were married for 63 before my grandfather died. He always said that when my grandmother argued, he would take a walk, because nobody can argue by themselves. (I might disagree with him on that one:) But your point, and his and mine, too I think, is we may take a walk, but the point is to end walk in a circle, instead of a straight line away.

    • Susan, thank you so much for this revealing and insightful comment…..your honesty is appreciated by me and I am sure anyone who is reading this post and these comments. It can be really difficult to speak in a balanced way about hard times in a marriage, and you have done a beautiful job here.

      Your point about being in church together is an interesting one. I am very interested in the idea of intimacy in relationships, and I think sometimes that spiritual intimacy can be an unexpected barrier in relationships. All I mean by that is it is pretty easy to think about the man who is not there and think he is contributing the problem, but I have known people who are so deep into what they are defining with God that they leave their spouse out in the cold. It can seem like a chicken and egg kind of thing…… one spouse withdrawn because they feel threatened? Or is one spouse in church alone because they feel that is their primary place of emotional support and love?

      All in all it seems best to be on the same page, whatever it is!

      I keep thinking about this idea that “God should be the center of Christian marriage.” I’m not saying that should not be true, but I think what that means is poorly defined in most cases and needs some exploration.

      I can’t thank you enough for your candor. You have really shared some amazing ideas here, and I know I sleep better knowing that hard times do not have to mean the end. Supporting one another with these kinds of stories I think is part of the larger success.

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