My prayer during my engagement was earnest and intense, if not terribly varied. Most of my petitions revolved around the hopes I had for my marriage:
Prepare me to be a good wife. Prepare him to be a good husband. Slay my selfishness, Father, and help me make a gift of myself. Help us have long, happy, life-giving years together.
I was determined to make marriage make me better, not for my sake but for the sake of the man I loved.
Over the course of a year, I made my way through Venerable Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married, highlighting entire pages with his meditations on love and sacrifice. Sheen frequently notes the that even in all the beauty of married life, God alone satisfies our deep ache for completion, asking questions like, “How can one love self without being selfish? How can one love others without losing self? The answer is: By loving both self and neighbor in God. It is His Love that makes us love both self and neighbor rightly.”
Somehow, this point got obscured in the elation of my engagement. It felt impossible not to imagine that, despite our human weaknesses and the inevitable arguments and inconveniences, marriage would be a perpetual state of transcendence. The heights.
And in many ways, it really has been. I try to stay aware and thankful of the fact that my marriage has been a purifying gift, with many moments of scarcely believable joy and true communion. Yet as I anticipated these days I once only dreamed of, I still created an elevated ideal of what I thought marriage would be--and, more specifically, how I would be.
I thought love would drown out any voices of self-doubt in my mind. I thought gratitude for my husband would make petty bickering simple to resolve. I thought no matter what lay ahead on the exterior, that the interior--the particular relationship and bond I’d share with my husband alone--would be untouchable.
As with any great love, there’s a heady early stage filled with infatuation and good will. Even for those of us aware of this tendency, it’s hard to avoid that rush. Without intending to, I’d become infatuated with marriage itself, idealizing it, and idealizing who I wanted to be as a wife, in my hopes for perfection.
After our wedding, I found myself wrestling with my worth through a season of unemployment and loneliness in a new town, annoyed when my husband did chores differently than me, and resentful that exterior issues like in-laws and long-distance holidays still cast frustration on my overall happiness.
I wanted to be the best wife I could be, and ended up misinterpreting “best” as “never dissatisfied.”
It wasn’t my husband’s doing. Never in our relationship have I felt on less than equal footing with him, and never has he been less than affirming and consoling when I’ve needed his tenderness and strength most. It was my own self I had to confront. Just as my veil was lifted at the altar on my wedding day, I was forced to see the me that resided beneath the veil of my ideals. The lifting of that veil, and the opportunity to contend with the fact that, despite my efforts, I couldn’t be a perfect wife--nor was I called to be--was painful.
I became so aware of my shortcomings in a way I hadn’t been before getting married. Seeing how I reacted to irritations and trials in relation to another person were like a mirror to a version of myself I’d never seen before. The image wasn’t the one I’d always hoped to see.
But who you are in your vocation isn’t just the person you or your spouse sees reflected back at you. Who does the Father see?
In all my concerns, all my desires to be the best I could be at marriage, my focus was so narrow I often forgot to welcome the channel of grace. I forgot to invite the Lord to form me alongside my inferior human designs, to welcome the formation that hurt. And ultimately, to trust that even in my imperfection, he loved me the same. It’s the same kind of love spouses are called to bear to one another--the holy one’s own face--and the kind of love I received time and again from my husband.
During a recent storm of anxiety and self-contempt, a therapist showed me an image with three concentric circles. The outer ring was labeled facade, encompassing the people, things, achievements, sensual things, and tendencies to pride and vanity we might attach ourselves to in the world. Within it was a circle called defects, including our failures, past sins, disappointments, anger, and means of escapism (food, materialism, sex, or substances). The center circle read core, and listed who every child of God is and is made to be: Beloved. A temple of the Holy Spirit. Full of grace. Holy. A new creation.
These three circles, she said, together make up our spirituality. While we, and others, can see the facades and the defects--surrounded by our idols, the things we desire to be or what we want the world to see--God’s transforming, radical love, his vision of us, quite literally cuts to the core.
He sees the us in that center circle, not discounting the imperfect parts of us, but never withdrawing his love in spite of them. Knowing this, it’s like having permission to let the idols topple. It’s natural, and good, to desire becoming your spouse’s closest earthly example of excruciating love. It does take three to get married, though, because peace lies in knowing you aren’t doing it alone and, moreover, knowing the Lord wants us to become more and more an embodiment of his love in our vocation.
Imperfection is a part of us, but it’s not who we are. Our identity doesn’t lie in our shortcomings or in the masks we wear. It lies in who we are: his daughters and sons.