[image by Adam Foster]

“That’s not who I married!”

It’s a response I often hear as I sit across from couples in therapy. At this point in the relationship one, or both of the spouses has become angered, disillusioned, sad (name the feeling/emotion) over what they feel is a loss of the person that they dated, became engaged to, and eventually married. They are desperately trying to get back to those early days, maybe capture those early feelings.

But the fact remains that each of them has changed. It’s part of the process of growing as a person. In fact, I would worry if the spouse was still the same, had never changed, and was the same today as they were on their wedding days years ago.

There are things that often stay pretty consistent about us throughout our life and marriage. Maybe it’s the temperament of the person, their favorite books to read, how they take their coffee in the morning, etc. Whatever it may be, there are markers that stay pretty consistent that give one spouse a pretty good knowledge of the other spouse.

But then there are things that may change such as hobbies, friendships, styles of food, music, or maybe even a move from extroversion to introversion. Sometimes the changes are so subtle that we may not notice in the busyness of life, or sometimes they may become so apparent that we feel like the “rules” of the marriage have been re-written without our knowledge or input on the matter.

When I was in seminary my favorite professor Dr. Ray Anderson told all of us graduate students a story (most of us were not married at the time and didn’t understand). He said that after 65 years of marriage he knew his wife pretty well. There were certain things about her that gave him a pretty good sketch of who she was, how she would act, and things that she wanted in life. But he said that even after 65 years of marriage, he still didn’t know her completely…nor would he ever. And then he said something that I will never forget…..

“When you say that you know everything about your spouse, then you have taken away their freedom to be who they are. Even after 65 years of marriage she is till a mystery in many ways.”

His point is that when we think we know everything about our spouse, we really haven’t left them the freedom to be, to grow as person, to remain a mystery in some ways. Instead, we can often subtly dictate to them on who they should be. We try to keep them the same person as when we met them.

Anderson went a step further and talked about this in relationship to God. Saying that if we say we know God completely, then we take away his freedom to be God. Sure, we know some things about God in our relationship with him, but he is still a mystery…and he should be. Who are we to dictate how he should be and act?

The same goes with our spouse. When we can rejoice in the knowledge we have of our spouse, but still let go enough to allow them the freedom to grow….to still remain mysterious and changing….that is a beautiful marriage.

So how do we do that? How do we allow our spouse the freedom to be…to continually grow?

There are many ways that I think this can be accomplished, some of which I have no answers for, as it’s a mystery what goes on in many marriages. But I have five suggestions on some things that I think have worked in my marriage, that I have seen work in other marriages, and that I suggest to couples as practical solutions.

  1. Encourage Hobbies/Talents: When we encourage our spouse in these areas it brings not only great growth in their lives, but in the marriage as a whole.  New hobbies and fostered talents open up new horizons and areas of freedom for the person.

  2. Atypical Date Night: Now a lot of people have date nights.  But they usually involve movies, dinner or some form of entertainment (which is great).  But I’m also a big proponent of just going out to talk and sharing life.  Take it as an opportunity to ask questions of your spouse that you have never asked, or haven’t asked in a while. Talk about the relationship, and where you two are at.  Reflect back on ways you have grown and encourage the other person.  Think of it as a time to engage one another, rather than just a time to be entertained or disengage.  Engage the mystery that is before you in the other person.

  3. Encourage Friendships: One of the great riches of friendships is that they also enrich the marriage, so I think when great friendships can be fostered by each spouse it not only helps them to grow individually, but brings growth to the marriage.  And as a caveat, I would say, encourage same-sex friendships.  That’s not saying that opposite sex people can’t be friends when married, but I’m talking about friendships in more than a casual/acquaintance manner.

  4. Balance Together/Alone Time: I think this can be hard for a lot of couples for a lot of reasons (many which are beyond this post).  But I think couples need to strike a balance between together/we time, and their own alone time.  When a spouse has their alone, downtime, I find that that solitude really helps them grow, and can only enrich the marriage.  Too many couples have a hard time navigating this space.

  5. Engage the Anxiety: Lots of couples avoid topics and conversations that bring up anxiety in themselves or the marriage.  This is very common, and is why many issues go undiscussed, often leading to resentment, or divorce later in the marriage when the issue can no longer hide (think empty nest time).  Earlier I had talked about stepping into your anxiety if you want to grow, which comes from David Snarch (as well as many other thinkers).  Snarch says: “That in order for a person to grow, they must step into their anxiety.  That it is in confronting our anxiety, rather than seeking comfort and security that we achieve growth as a person.” Really challenge yourselves to have the tough conversations (about sex, money, inlaws, kids, faith, finances, etc, etc.), and you will find that when you can step into your own anxiety, it will give you the greatest opportunity for growth as an individual, and in your marriage.

There is no step by step process in allowing your spouse the freedom to be, but I think you can foster some practices over time that will encourage this area of your marriage.

Do you have any suggestions that have worked in your marriage?