Holy Resignation

How to Radically Accept and Unconditionally Love Your (Sometimes Irritating) Spouse

My husband and I had a rather unique path down the aisle to "I do." Our relationship, round one, was characterized by times of idyllic friendship that inched us toward emotional intimacy, and then resulted in him hitting the eject button. Repeatedly.

Whenever he said he needed space, I obeyed the letter of his law but not the spirit. Within a month, we were back together, typically because of my charitable, good nature (read: I was a skilled manipulator). This cyclical drama culminated in a proposal (we had a good week) and a short engagement. Not short because we planned a quick wedding, but short because he panicked and called everything off.

His decision precipitated two years of separation, two years of counseling, two years of coming to terms with some significant fears and broken patterns of relating—for both of us. When he re-initiated contact, we had each made significant progress toward relational wholeness. This time, his proposal stuck and we celebrated our nuptials with friends and family, some of whom remained a bit skeptical.

During our thirty years together, he has never freaked out and I've never manipulated him. (One of these is true.) However, on more than one occasion, we have sailed through some serious turbulence.

Though we share many things in common (our faith, love for travel, and a passion for the arts), we have had to navigate our significant personality differences. He's an extroverted extrovert and likes loud, sustained conversations, preferably after 10 PM. I like to be in bed, with a book, at 9:00. I think being on time is morally correct. He sees time as a metaphor. I’ve learned that when he calls to tell me he's leaving work, I need to ask, "Define leaving. Is your computer browser still open or is your key in the ignition?" Little things these. To quote Eeyore, "We all have our ways."

In addition to our wildly different personalities, we also have areas of inherent weakness—places within us which are not fully developed. I tend to shut down in conflict, mostly out of fear that my words might draw blood. During our first real fight as a married couple, he had to wait almost an hour before I could speak a single sentence about what was going on for me. When he tells this sotry, he recounts feeling like he had his hands tied behind his back and while fire ants freely roamed his body. Conflict does not intimidate him; his fear surfaces whenever a power tool is needed. Saw a piece of clapboard to replace what the dog gnawed off as he chased the chipmunk? Not happening.

When these situations arise, we can feel disappointed with each other. While it might be good for a laugh now and then, long term, these misses can land couples in the lawyer's office.

We all enter marriage with specific—though often unspoken—expectations about what our husband or wife needs to/ought to/should be. Some of these expectations are absolutely essential: like fidelity, honesty, and mutuality. If these were the only category of expectations that we carried down the aisle, the divorce rate would drop significantly. But of course, they’re not the only kind.

Whether or not we realize it, we form countless expectations during the course of our lives, particularly during our childhoods. For instance, I assumed that my husband would relish the opportunity to do home and auto repairs simply because my dad enjoyed fixing things. The fact that my beloved doesn’t follow my script occasionally irritates me. Of course this dynamic goes both ways. My husband’s mother prepared a traditional, American Thanksgiving dinner but also served antipasto and two trays of lasagna—with extra sauce on the side. It took several years for him to let go of his expectation that I would replicate his family's abundant holiday table.

We've tried to change each other via some combination of advising, teaching, manipulating, pleading, praying, and "helping." Surprise, surprise, none of these tactics work. In fact, I would argue that they can actually cause a marriage to disintegrate.

The only strategy that has been remotely helpful has required a paradigm shift. Rather than giving up on each other with an exasperated sigh accompanied by a dismissive eye roll, we choose to accept each other, limitations and all, and refuse to judge each other as lacking. We’ve come to refer to this as holy resignation. (And duly noted, we also try to eliminate behaviors and habits that the other person finds annoying.)

Holy resignation helps me to appreciate my husband and his many extraordinary qualities without needing him to be someone else. Because this is not my default, it requires both intentionality and faith. By intentionality, I mean that I have to pay attention when irritations surface and then do the necessary spiritual work rather than obeying the feeling. This is not denial—my eyes are wide open. Choosing to love even as I feel the drag of disappointment can only happen when I turn to God and ask him to provide me with the requisite resources. Remarkably, He does not seem troubled by my repeated requests.

My husband may never pick up the circular saw and I may never replicate his mother's Thanksgiving dinner, but by choosing to radically accept and unconditionally love each other, we have created a joyful and mutually fulfilling marriage.

If you like what you just read, consider reading one of my marriage books: Marriage in the Middle, or Making Marriage Beautiful.

Please note: We would not advise going this route if there’s any kind of abuse or neglect happening. We never want to condone bad behavior.

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This article originally appeared in Christianity Today.